Over a barrel

You can tell it's spring because there's a possibility of natural lighting in these photos now.

You can tell it’s spring because there’s a possibility of natural lighting in these photos now.

The Specs: Phillips Brewing Co. (Victoria, BC), Puzzler Barrel-Aged Belgian Black IPA
7.3 per cent ABV, 650mL

So, let’s talk about barrel-aging. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. This is awkward, because if you throw a rock in your average craft-beer-fancying liquor store right now there’s a pretty high chance you’re going to hit at least one bottle that boasts some time in old wood (and a small chance you’ll instead hit a liquor store employee. Don’t throw rocks in liquor stores.)

I’m not exactly opposed to the taste barrel-aging seems to impart — a sort of rich, funky-fruity warmth that reminds me a bit of those super high-alcohol styles like tripel — but the second I notice that tone in a bottle, odds are good I’m going to lose the ability to taste anything else going on.

Which brings me to the barrel-aged version of Philips Puzzler, where I really, really wanted to taste something else.

The first couple sips of this beer were exactly what I was hoping for from something with the words “black IPA” on its label — a broad swath of hoppy bitterness traversing a more classic dark beer full of toasted grains and just a whiff of coffee. Mild sweetness, thick head, nice, dense mouthfeel a bit beyond the usual IPA. All-around, a fantastic beer I was intensely excited to drink.

And then the barrel aging kicked in around sip five and I lost all sense of the hops… and everything else besides.

To be fair, Philips does prime you for this a bit on its website, where the special aged Puzzler’s hop character is described as “a more subtle presence” than that of the non-aged garden-variety stuff. From my experience so far, I’m guessing the original is more my line. If I can track a bottle down somewhere in Kamloops, I’ll report back.

Moral of this story, I guess, is don’t buy barrelled beer unless you mean it. While I’m sure there’s a place for it that I enjoy, it’s going to take some more tasting for me to figure out just when that is.

(An aside that’s not really here nor there: It’s interesting how the flavours of barrel-aging really change your perception of a beer. After a pint of this, I was sure it must be about an 8 or 9 per cent, but it’s a relatively mild 7.3. That bourbon-y wood really amps up the boozy flavour, if not the ABV.)