Beer Review: New Belgium Oakspire Bourbon Barrel Ale

This new release aged in Knob Creek barrels can satisfy both beer and bourbon fans.

 photo by Kevin Gibson

photo by Kevin Gibson

Brewery collaborations are commonplace, and it sure seems brewery-distiller collaborations are becoming increasingly common as craft beer evolves. The preferred beer that typically goes into a used bourbon barrel is an imperial stout or some other big beer that will accentuate the sweet qualities of the leftover bourbon as well as the oak. When New Belgium Brewing and Knob Creek Bourbon got together, they paired a rye ale with something a little different.

Yes, bourbon barrels are involved, but this was not a dump-and-wait situation. According to a press release, New Belgium engineers created a “steel, missile-shaped vessel” in which char from used Knob Creek Barrels and bourbon-soaked oak spirals came together with the base beer. The char works to add brown sugar and caramel notes thanks to caramelized wood sugars, while the oak spirals were toasted to add secondary flavors of oak and spice.

The result is a beer with a unique flavor that also brings with it a nice balance. I’m of the mind that if you want to drink bourbon, drink bourbon. If you want to drink beer, you want it to taste like beer, right? I’ve tasted too many beers over the years in which the flavor of the base gets drowned out by the barrel. Oakspire is not one of those beers.

In and of itself, it’s a basic-looking, amber-bodied ale. In a way, it bears the same hue as a rye bourbon. When I took the first whiff, I expected a blast of oak, caramel and campfire, but the aroma of this beer is surprisingly restrained—especially for a beer that packs 9 percent alcohol by volume. The expected notes peek out, but I expected something bombastic and got something measured.

The flavor is malty, sweet and even buttery, with flavors of caramel and butterscotch, along with hints of the oak involved. Right away, I knew this was a beer that tasted like beer —a particularly sweet, malt-forward beer, mind you—with a leaning toward the bourbon qualities. It’s beer, for sure, but it’s beer that is tailored to tickle a bourbon lover’s palate.

What you get is the clean, crisp feel of an amber ale with plenty of bourbon-style sweetness that finishes with a bit of spicy kick from the rye and char. This doesn’t have the warming finish of a bourbon-barreled imperial stout—it’s more a palate-pleasing sipper than a winter warmer—which actually belies the alcohol level in the liquid.

For as much sweetness as comes through in the flavor profile, the beer drinks surprisingly clean. The sugars from the malt and oak coat the palate to a degree, but not like I expected it to. Well done, given the malt bill that includes Pale, Munich, Caramel 80, Rye and Roasted Barley. New Belgium may have something here in this bourbon missile they’ve created.

“We could have simply barrel-aged some ale, or rested beer on barrel staves, but that wouldn’t have given us the amazing freshness and flavor of Oakspire Bourbon Barrel Ale,” said Ross Koenigs, Research and Development Brewer at New Belgium in a press release.

 

Oakspire is available in 12-ounce bottles and on draft for a limited time.