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Monday, September 19th 2011

Indiana's Great Crescent Brewery First to Can a Barrel-Aged Beer

Barrel-aged beers are very popular. Most of the bigger brewers in America are doing some sort of barrel-aging to please the palates of today's more and more demanding craft beer drinkers. Goose Island tends to take credit for being the first to release a barrel-aged beer back in 1992 when they released their now popular Bourbon County Stout. It took almost two decades but Great Crescent Brewery is now the first to ever put a barrel-aged beer in a can. 

Chances are many people haven't heard about this small Aurora, Indiana brewery. Perhaps that will change one day - maybe sooner than later as they've just expanded their brewing capacity ten fold from 6 barrels to 60 barrels. But, for now they're quietly producing some amazing beers and showing beer lovers that amazing beer can come from a can. Case in point, they're Bourbon's Barrel Stout. The world's first barrel-aged beer to be canned. Skeptical? You wouldn't be alone. But, we're here to tell you that you needn't be.

A little over one month ago Marc Figueruoa put together a beer-related piece for the North County Times - a San Diego newspaper. In his article entitled, "Some craft brewers shift from bottle to can", there is the following quote from Pizza Port (Carlsbad) Head Brewer Jeff Bagby:

"I think it (canning) will always be a small part of the craft beer market," Bagby said. "I don't see it taking over bottles, especially with the high-end beers. I'd be amazingly surprised if we ever see barrel-aged beer in a can...It just doesn't even sound right."

Great Crescent aparently wasn't too worried about how it sounded. In fact, according to owner/brewery, Dan Valas, there was never any hesitation when it came to canning all of their beers including their Bourbon's Barrel Stout. Valas said, "When we decided to go into a smaller single-serving package, i.e. bottle or can, we did quite a bit of research on the various options. The bottom line is this - a can is either a good way to package beer or it isn't. On packaging day we pack kegs, then growlers (counter-pressure filled) and then cans - it's the same beer being packed from the same tank."

So, what exactly goes into making the first ever barrel-aged beer to end up in a can? We posed that question to Dan as well.

"The stout we age here at Great Crescent Brewery in the bourbon barrels is on the higher side of the style guidelines for American Stout - ABV: 8% IBU: 69. We use a variety of malts including a base of 2 row Pale Ale malt and add specialty grains from Britain. We call ahead to find out when the barrels will be emptied and arrange to pick them up the next day - just like beer, fresh is best. We use barrels from the Maker's Mark distillery, which we find to be of very high quality. 

The beer doesn't age for a set-period of time in the barrel. We start tasting it at 3 weeks and decide from there when to package. We use the barrels twice and then they go off for other uses."

When we opened a can of Bourbon's Barrel it was obvious that the vessel it came packed in, a can they designed to be used for all of their beers with a sticker denoting the style, had done a great job preserving all of the aromas and flavors and complexities of the barrel-aging process. The subtle vanilla and tannic flavors from the wood blended extremely well with the roasty, malty notes. Sip after sip of this dark beauty went down smooth as silk and I was left wondering if perhaps Great Crescent had done something simple but yet just a bit monumental. They raised the bar and did it well. Very well.

We posed a few other questions to Dan about the canning businss at Great Crescent and the reactions folks have to beer in cans. Cheers Dan!

(CC) What has been the reaction to those that have had this beer? Do they care that the beer they're drinking is comes from a can?

(DV) Some folks want to stay loyal to the growler, which is a fun package and easy to share. It also provides a little cover when you have to insist that the growler needs to be finished because it will go flat if you try to save it overnight. However, the vast majority of our customers (including retailers) have taken to the cans really well. Bourbon's Barrel Stout is one of our strongest sellers and the majority of it goes into cans.

"Bourbon's Barrel Stout is one of our strongest sellers and the majority of it goes into cans."

We give samples at the brewery and sometimes they come out of a can. After a sample they will say they want to buy some beer - we ask "in cans or growler". Once in a while the person will state they would never drink beer out of a can, we point out that the sample they just had was from a can. Surprise - they buy cans, sometimes a growler too.


(CC) What would you say to those people out there that might be concerned about bigger beers or barrel-aged beers coming in cans and not the familiar big, glass bottles?

(DV) Really, I can't imagine what there is to be concerned about. Cans seal better, don't let in any light and have less oxygen pick-up than bottles. It's about the beer and the experience of drinking it and sharing it with friends. I pour my beer into a glass anyway, so what difference does it make? We sell a pint glass with our logo on it for $3 - pour Great Crescent Brewery beers from a keg, growler or can into a glass or your favorite stein, it will taste the same. I think sometimes that we are too willing to buy the sizzle and forget about the steak.


(CC) Any chance will see any other specialty brews from Great Crescent being canned?

(DV) We plan on canning every beer we make at Great Crescent Brewery, so you will definitely see most of our beer in cans - seasonals and specialty beers included. Sometimes we pack all of a beer in kegs, like our Oktoberfest this year. But in general there is no beer that we won't put in a can. We just fired up the new boiler yesterday for our expanded brew-house, so we have a lot of new beers planned and they will all likely go into cans at some point.


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Posted by Russ