While many craft brewers are jumping into the market with barrel-aged beers, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery has been brewing a variety of distinctive, complex, and award-winning barrel-aged beers for 14 years. In 2000, Town Hall acquired its first barrel and started creating barrel-aged beer for its anniversary week in October 2001. Since then, the brewpub has created exceptional recipes that have earned accolades and established Town Hall as a leading brewer of barrel-aged beer.
In that first year, Brewmaster Mike Hoops created Czar Jack Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout. The beer’s combination of dark chocolate, distinctive oak notes, bourbon character and balanced malt body won over fans and critics alike, taking home a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2001. Over the years, Town Hall steadily increased the number and variety of barrel-aged beers to meet the incredible demand. In 2013, Town Hall nabbed a GABF Bronze Medal for Twisted Trace Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine, and in 2014, they repeated the feat with Buffalo Bock taking a GABF Bronze Medal.
Town Hall held its barrel-aged week on February 16-20 and released nine impressive beers. All were offered on tap and in 750 ml mini growlers. Hoops and crew developed Manhattan Reserve (Grand Cru aged with cherries in a Woodford Reserve barrel), Foolish Angel (a Belgian quad aged in Angel’s Envy Casks), Buffalo Bock, (Weizenbock aged in an Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel), Twisted Trace (barley wine aged in a Buffalo Trace barrel), Project 3106 (a double American Brown ale with chocolate and kumquats), Czar Jack Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout, Brown Label (strong American Brown ale aged with maple syrup in Woodford Casks), Duke of Wallonia, (double wit, aged in French oak red win cask), and finally, Le Baltique (Balic Porter in French oak red win cask).
Town Hall continues to be one of the preeminent and innovative craft brewers, and barrel-aged beers are just one aspect of the brewing program. In October 1997, Pete Rifakes and a partner opened Town Hall at its flagship location of 1430 South Washington Avenue. Over the years, Brewmaster Hoops and the staff at Town Hall quickly earned a reputation as one of the most innovative and talented craft brewers as their beer won awards and high ratings on many beer websites. Town Hall has expanded over the years. Now it has two other locations– Town Hall Tap at 4810 Chicago Avenue South and Town Hall Lanes at 5019 S 34th Avenue, which are both in Minneapolis.
I got a chance to catch up with Mike Hoops at the Washington street location at the conclusion of Barrel-Aged Week and as he and his crew prepared for Minnesota Brewer’s Guild Winter Fest show.
Hoops’ dedication and passion were readily apparent. As he said, “One thing about this brewery is that we are a brewpub and our brewing facility is on site. We brew somewhere between 50 and 60 [different beers] in a year. It’s really fun for us as brewers. It’s good fun for the customers too.”
Hoops explained how the barrel-aged program started as an experiment and just grew from there. “We bought our first barrel of beer in the year 2000 and that beer was done in 2001. That was our Czar Jack. It started with just one [barrel] as an experiment. That beer was usually coming out in October. Then we would have 2, 3, or 4 different [barrel-aged] beers, and those were offered during our anniversary week. And then we kept on growing and growing it. About six years ago we started doing barrel-aged week, and this year we had nine beers in barrel-aged week. These [barrel-aged beers] will be offered this week and on. And then they will slowly disappear and then we will bring back some of them periodically throughout the year. We were just talking [about] how can we top [this year] because we get customers expecting new ones every year.”
With a gleam in his eye, Hoops explained that barrel aging is one aspect of his passion for brewing beer. “Barrel-aged beer was something that really appealed to me. I realized that the barrel was simply another ingredient to making a really complex beer. And we grew it realizing that consumers wanted it. Anytime we could find [more] space, we figured out how to fit more barrels in [to the brewing facility].”
“Actually, next week we are going to Kentucky to get more barrels,” he said. “We get them ourselves and we don’t use middlemen. We have direct relationships with the distillers. And it seems to work pretty well for supply. There is stuff that they know about these barrels and the more time you spend with them you will get little hints of information. The plan is to get 24 [bourbon and whiskey] barrels this time. Probably in another two months we plan to get another dozen wine barrels.”
As a veteran brewmaster in the Twin Cities market, Hoops detailed his principles and approach to aging beer in the barrels. “Whatever comes out of the barrel first whether it’s wine, whiskey, bourbon or tequila, whatever the distillate is, it gives you an indication of what the barrel might hold. Now every barrel is different because it is wood. Generally speaking, what I am after is an average with a certain type of product or barrel if you will. We expect to get a certain kind of profile. And that determines how to make the beer recipes that go into it. At one time, whatever barrels we could get, it would be, ‘gee that might work in there.’ But now we actually try to highlight [those barrel qualities] in the beer recipes themselves and certain aspects we anticipate are in the barrel. Now how do we choose them [barrels]? We used to have a lot more options. Barrels can be stored high in the rick house or low on the rick house age differently according to the temperature. Now we’ve got to the point where through relationships they kind of understand what we are after.”
Regarding the complexity and nuances of selecting the barrels for aging beer, he continues, “When the barrels become available they [the barrel suppliers] let us know. If you go lower in the rick house, it can age slower. If you go higher in the rick house, it can age faster. That even changes if it [a barrel] is near a window; it can age differently. What’s interesting about the top of the barrel is the hogshead. Normally they’re flat, but every once in a while, we will get one that is super wavy. And I never understood why that’s the case, and atmospheric pressure does that. It forces the distillate into the wood, and the pressure changes and sucks it back out. And, it actually deforms the barrels. If you typically find that, you’re going to be happy [with the flavor characteristics] because the distillate probably got deeper into the wood.”
Some brewers barrel-age a certain percentage of beer in barrels and then blend it with beer from a typical stainless steel fermenter. “We don’t blend any of our beer,” Hoops stated. “A lot of breweries can make perfectly good beer, but they may say blended with 30% barrel-aged product or something like that. In that case, you can let it [aging beer] sit in your barrel a little bit longer and get deeper character from the bourbon in your oak. You can do that because you’re blending it back off with regular beer anyway. You have flexibility of manipulation of the flavor profile. Now, the fact that we don’t blend ours off out of the barrel makes it more challenging and more fun for certain.”
Town Hall has a process for evaluating the barrels and forecasting which qualities it will deliver to the beer. As Hoops noted, “Every time we get a barrel in, we have a calibration period. We just got some tequila barrels in recently. For the first time…a week, month, six weeks…we have been on it straight through. So we think we understand that particular barrel, the climate with the product in it.”
Hoops also explained that there’s competition to acquire the barrels. “It’s getting harder and that’s one of the reasons that about five years ago, we decided to get into a vehicle and drive to Tennessee and/or Kentucky because we work with Jack Daniels so we could shake their hands.”
He continued, “I called the new distillery because we’re growing and we’re trying to develop more relationships, so we can maintain our supply. They’re more of a commodity than they used to be. The distillers and winemakers are finding more use for them. It is a limited product to some degree. Spirits are on the rise. One of our main suppliers this year came back to us with a third of what we actually needed. I was literally getting on my hands and knees begging other distillers. They’re going to set us up [and sell Town Hall the barrels], but it’s harder. Next week when we go down to Kentucky we will bring back 24 from five different distilleries. And that’s all we could fit in a trailer without renting a bigger truck.”
Town Hall and many other breweries are crafting more than imperial bourbon stouts. With nine beers this year, Hoops has a lot to keep track of. “They’re all fun in their own right,” he said. “I’ve been brewing beer for 18 years. It’s interesting to brew barrel-aged beers on the brewpub level, and it really excites me these days because the creative aspect of it is unmatched. There are a lot of variables you have to try to anticipate coming out of barrel that you can control, which makes it more challenging and more fun.”
He added, “One of the reasons why we drive down there is that they’re dumped [bourbon is emptied] the day before and then we pick them up. So they’re full of beer in about a week or so. It’s little bit more challenging when you get in wine barrels. Certainly, that’s also part of the beauty of the wine barrels. It’s different with wine barrels too because sometimes it is harder to find them. And you are not going to find very many wines that are 90 proof. So there’s much less alcohol inside of the barrels so critters [wild yeast and bacteria] can live easier inside them.”
Hoops’ process for establishing recipes is evolutionary. “All the recipes in the brewery get tweaked until we’re happy with them. We recalibrate and then update them every once in a while. With Czar Jack once we’re pleased with it, we won’t change it too much as far as recipes for barrel-aged week. Without a significant space increase, it’s hard to continue to grow. There’ll be a point in which we can’t increase in numbers anymore. We physically cannot do it [because of space limitations]. We’re not at that point yet though. I would rather not grow numbers [of beers offered] than decrease the quality of what we brew.”
And looking forward, Hoops gave us some perspective and his insight into the maturing craft brewing market in Minnesota. He said, “In the next five years, there’s going to be some changes certainly. There are still a lot of new breweries, which is great. Some of the newer people are doing real wonderful work, and some are still learning. Even some of the older people are still learning. In the next five years, consumers are going to be smarter to the point where some of the people that are still learning may not have much more of a chance to learn. It may mean a shakeout…quality based. I wish no ill will on anybody but I think that naturally that can happen. I think our quality is good enough to still be relevant. We’ve been here for 17 years and people keep coming in the door even with all the new guys opening.”
Mike also highlighted his own inspiration in the craft brewing industry. He said, “Early on, the passion for brewing is all that I needed. What Mark [Stutrud] has accomplished over at Summit since 1984, that’s inspirational stuff. What Omar[Ansari] and Todd [Haug] have been able to do at Surly in a very short time is inspirational. That’s just on the local scale. I am inspired by what my brother [Dave Hoops] and his crew are doing [at Fitgers Brewhouse in Duluth]. But when you go larger and look at the national level, companies like Alaska brewing have done well, and they’ve been through a lot of hardships. It is very inspirational going to national conferences and listening to people from those companies, how they got there. Sierra Nevada is one of my favorites and New Belgium. I can name the people, but those people are part of teams. There are some small guys too. There is a brewpub in California called Marin Brewing Company. It has been around forever and a guy named Arnie [Johnson] has been there longer than I have [been at Town Hall]. He is inspirational to me as well. He always takes time to talk. It’s a small industry and you have quality people, and that’s pretty cool.”