I love oak. It is indeed a wondrous, magical thing. Whisky isn’t whisky without its beguiling touch and, well, most wine wouldn’t be wine without oak's sweet caress either. Of course, oak and beer go hand in hand too, and this relationship goes back many centuries, but, with the availability of stainless steel and all the improved hygiene and cost savings it brings, we've seen its use decline.
When I think of the role of oak in beer today I think of barrel aged stouts or barrel aged sours; lambics, gueuze and the like. The first is a great example of oak maturation and the latter goes one step further with fermentation in oak followed by maturation too. This famously introduces a whole microcosm of microorganisms that infect the beer and take it into a new realm altogether. This is a wonderful addition in the spectrum of beer styles but what about 'clean' barrel fermented beer? Well, that's generally considered a trickier proposition.
But not so for Firestone Walker. These folk have been making their Double Barrel Ale since the early 90s, a beer that uses barrel fermentation through a system known as the Burton Union. In fact they are one of only two breweries still using this kit which was cutting edge in the mid 1900s (the other brewery is Marston’s in the UK). Their Double Barrel Ale pays homage to the English pale ale and is the beer that kicked things off for this iconic brewery. It’s their flagship brew and it tastes rather good.
The nose is sublime with a lovely hit of orchard fruits combining with toasty malt, hints of vanilla and gentle yeasty notes. The palate is balanced to a tee with lemon and orange flavours fusing with the malt and leading to a gentle bitter finish. It is the epitome of sessionable, even at 5%. I can imagine me, a pub and this beer on hand pull could be a very dangerous combination. Effortless drinking with enough complexity and interest for the solo drinker too.
Of course, this isn’t a big oak bomb of a beer, that’s not the point. But if you feel like rediscovering some of the subtleties of barrel fermentation, thanks to its oxidative environment, the way it coaxes the yeast and the flavours it imparts, then give this beer a pop… just make sure you get a few, as one simply won’t be enough.