Rare Barrel-Aged Libations Blur the Line Between Beer and Wine

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Photos courtesy of B. United International

The arrival of the Zymatore Project at Downtown’s Beachwood BBQ and Brewing this evening will provide the West Coast with its first glimpse of a barrel-aging experiment in the ever-expanding craft beer scene. On tap will be at least nine style-bending beers that are unlikely to be seen anywhere in Southern California again. Accompanying these exclusive beers will be five special appetizers with suggested beer pairings.

Created by B. United International—the Connecticut-based importer of some interesting beers from around the world—Zymatore is a specialized program that ages and re-ferments rare beers and meads in oak barrels that once contained equally-as-rare wines and spirits. These experiments, conducted with the original breweries’ consent but without their direct oversight or control, result in uncommon combinations that boggle the mind and challenge the consumer’s palate to negotiate the perceived differences between beer, wine, and spirits.

One of the beers being poured at the Beachwood event, for example, will be the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes' (BFM) Abbaye de St. Bon Chien beer aged in Pommeau Barrels. Bon Chien is a strong ale (11% Alcohol by Volume) brewed with spices in Switzerland. The beer is then aged by the brewer in various barrels which have previously been used to age French red wines, European whiskies, and even grappa. The resulting beer is blended (much like in winemaking or whisky production) to create a harmonious balance. B. United then imports this already-unique beer to Connecticut in large tanks, where it is reintroduced into barrels in their own subterranean facilities—in this case into a northern French Pommeau (a mix of apple juice and apple brandy) barrel. From this particular variation, only a very small number (perhaps a dozen or so total) of kegs make it out for distribution.

The results, according to Beachwood's General Manager Justin Evelyn, “blur the line between wine and beer,” creating a layered, complex tasting experience.

But Zymatore is not just about big and complex beers. Another beer on tap for this event will be Harviestoun’s Schiehallion, a Scottish pale lager aged very briefly in a bourbon barrel.

"A delicate beer like this could easily be overwhelmed by the intensity of the bourbon," says Evelyn, "but it still works. Everything is well balanced, and the bourbon isn’t just dominating the beer.”

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Barrel aged beers are not new in the American beer world. Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts and wine-barrel aged sour beers have become commonplace in bars and bottle shops over the last few years. Anticipation and long lines (both physical and virtual) have become commonplace for the releases of beers such as The Bruery’s Black Tuesday, Fifty Fifty’s Eclipse, or Alesmith’s Barrel-Aged Speedway Stout.

But, whereas those beers are produced by production breweries, B. United is an importer—a middleman position in America’s infamous three-tier alcohol distribution system. Importers and distributors are usually the most invisible element in the craft beer scene from the perspective of the average consumer. And it’s nearly unheard of, especially in the beer business, for an importer to take on a creative role in terms of production.

“Importers are kind of the unsung heroes of the beer community," says Evelyn, "so it’s really cool to see these guys taking a huge leap in craft beer innovation and it’s nice to be able to highlight that for us as a business.”

If Zymatore beers are such a rarified occurrence, how then, you might ask, does Beachwood have so many to offer at once? B. United began shipping Zymatore beers about a little over a year ago; and after sampling, and being highly impressed by, their products at that time, Evelyn began coordinating with B. United West Coast Division Manager, Michael Hartman, to procure and save project beers for just such an event. The patient, year-long endeavor has led to what will be the first event of its kind on the west coast, and one of only a few in the nation.

Will the Zymatore Project model become a trend in the American craft beer scene? Evelyn, though he hopes it will, thinks probably not. In his estimation, there are only a very few importers in this country with the knowhow, passion and resources to successfully pursue this kind of endeavor. All the more reason to head to Beachwood tonight and enjoy some of the most unique beers you are ever likely to encounter.

A Night With the Zymatore Project. Thursday, November 15, 6PM at Beachwood BBQ and Brewing, 210 East 3rd Street, (562) 436-4020.

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