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Thursday, December 18, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 27.0° F  
Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Vintage Brewing's Big Barrel Tarrarel seduces with the power of the malt side
The selection at Vintage Brewing's Big Barrel Tarrarel is dizzying.
Credit:Julia Burke

Undoubtedly one of geekiest events over the course of Madison Craft Beer Week, the Big Barrel Tarrarel at Vintage Brewing Company is a chance to try some of the strangest, strongest, and most complex beers made in the Madison are, plus a few more from around the country to boot. It's clear from the demeanor of the crowd that this is serious business. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Vintage's restaurant and bar, the Tarrarel, now in its third year, is truly a tasting rather than a drinking event.

Attendees focus on the beer, taking small sips and gushing over their flavors with friends. "I know everything I drink today is gonna be awesome," said beer enthusiast Paul Goemans over a glass of rum-barrel-aged Vintage Trepidation, a Belgian quad. The crowd is indisputably geeky, and speak almost reverentially about the opportunity to taste these rare brews.

"We're here because we're big fans of bourbon and wine-aged beers," said Stacy Steyer over a glass of Vintage Honey Crisp Apple Dedication Ale. "We actually got into them here at Vintage, at another sour event they hosted."

There's no question that Vintage Brewing is known locally for its experimental, innovative concoctions. "Wine's not the only thing that belongs in a barrel!" pointed out Clint Lohman, a brewer at Vintage. He added that barrel-aged styles can often draw wine drinkers over to the malt side. "For people who love wine, these styles pick up the tannin and acidity that are familiar," he explained.

While interesting and often very tasty options were on offer from breweries that included the House of Brews (Madison), the Grumpy Troll (Mount Horeb), Sweet Mullets Brewing (Oconomowoc), O'so Brewing (Plover), and Brau Brothers (Marshall, Minnesota), the host brewery Vintage was the clear belle of the ball.

Five Vintage-brewed highlights from the tasting follow, in no particular order.

Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Max Stout 2012
The opportunity to try a vertical tasting of a single beer -- that is, tasting the same beer from several different years in a row -- is a rare one, and most attendees jumped at the chance to watch Vintage Maximilian Russian Imperial Stout age before their eyes. Though the 2010, the oldest vintage available, was beautiful and mellow, the 2012 was at its aging peak, showing gorgeous carbonation and perfect assembly of flavors and structure with sweet malts and just a kiss of oak tannin becoming present as it warmed. This vintage was aged seven months in bourbon-style whiskey barrels from Yahara Bay Distillers; it tops out at 11% ABV.

Templeton Rye Barrel-Aged Max Stout
In addition to the exciting vertical of Vintage's classic Max Stout, this version aged seven months in Templeton Rye whiskey barrels was another rapturous ode to the versatility and ageability of the stout. At 11% ABV, this was a Templeton lover's dream, clearly more than the sum of its parts with the piney spices of wiskey playing against the smooth, delicately roasted, and creamy stout. From nose to finish, this was a Rolls Royce of a beer.

Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Oude DeVille
Among Vintage's sour offerings, this was a clear favorite. This last-remaining stash of Belgian barley wine, soured and aged in an apple brandy barrel, hit 11% ABV. Barley wines tend to be unapologetic booze bombs, but this version puts the "wine" back in the name: tart, just a touch oaky, and husky, this is one of few Belgian strong ales I'd be pleased to drink in the summertime.

Honey Crisp Brandy Barrel-Aged Dedication 2013
Another frequently-cited favorite of the day by attendees, this version of Vintage Dedication, an "oversized dubbel," was aged seven months in a single-varietal apple brandy barrel and packs 10.5% ABV. It's wonderful, almost cider-like, with a mellow malt finish that results in an apple pie sensation. The amazing acidity-to-sweetness ratio makes me think this would be killer with a hunk of Hook’s aged cheddar.

Curious Gourd 2013
I'm a pumpkin beer aficionado, and for that I am routinely heckled by beer geeks who dismiss the style as pedestrian and weak. Those who say pumpkin can't be part of an incredible beer would do well to taste Vintage Curious Gourd, one of the most unique offerings at this tasting -- and that’s saying something. At 8.9% ABV, this soured and bourbon-barrel-aged pumpkin abbey ale is a revelation. The nose suggests a cuddly pumpkin ice cream beer, but the mid-palate sour character administers a dope-slap to the back of the head upon first sip. It's an amazing combo that finishes almost like pumpkin lemonade -- an incredibly, dangerously refreshing, and certainly "curious" experience.

The selection at the Big Barrel Tarrarel is simply dizzying, with non-Vintage offerings like the beautiful Brett pale Winds of Change from O'so Brewing and Brau Brothers' weird and rare Framboise Bancreagie (a raspberry Flanders brown) also among the memorable brews. It's a treat to taste so many amazing brews in one sitting. Vintage is to be commended for holding such a worthy celebration of barrel-aged beers -- and indisputably reigning the category with its creations.

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