More than 20,000 litres of beer ageing in barrels in the middle of a bustling capital city, wedged between the sparkling Brisbane River and pumping live music. Is there anything else like that in Australia? Is there anything else like that in the world? I don’t think there is.
The team at Felons have been nurturing beer in their unique Barrel Hall for almost two and a half years now, and finally they’ve reached the point where they have a range of barrel-aged beers to release.
Most beer is made from four ingredients, so the Felons crew talk about their barrel program as introducing two new ingredients into the mix: oak and time. But talk to them for a minute and you’ll find they list off a few more ingredients too. They’ll mention the bacteria that brings acidity, the oxygen that affects the flavour compounds, and the loud music that flows through the beer several nights a week.
While they can’t prove it, the Felons crew reckon the live music and DJ beats that play in the Barrel Hall probably play a part in agitating the yeast and moving the liquid in and out of the wood grain.* And again – where else do you get stacks of beer barrels and energetic music artists in the same venue?
Whether or not the music affects the taste of the beers, it’s hard to say. But try the beers and you’ll find that whatever the brewers and blenders are doing, it’s working.
Speaking of the beers…
Land At Last is first, as it’s the most delicate of these four beers: the entree of the range. It’s a French saison that was moved into barrels about halfway through its fermentation (the only one of the four beers to be oak-fermented), so there was still a hum of activity in the liquid when it was put into barrel. As it settled down, it then spent 18 months resting in the French oak white wine barrels.
Brettanomyces from the wood brings esters of overripe stonefruit, which intermingle with white wine character, and these are both overlaid with hay. Not intense or pungent hay; imagine a soft yellow bundle of hay in a painting, resting in a barn that’s almost otherworldly in its appeal.
Lightly cloudy with a prickly carbonation, this beer drinks almost like a natural wine: it’s dry, it’s smooth, and it allows a slightly bitter sourness onto the back of the palate.
Red Sky At Night is a sour red ale in the style of a Flanders red. The muted paprika colour is courtesy of the small batch sustainable Voyager malts that make up its grain bill. And the lovely complexity of flavours is courtesy of the 20 months it spent conditioning in a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and whisky barrels.
Served up on a fluffy bed of carbonation, the malt-derived flavour notes of berry and dark plum with undertones of caramel and toffee are complemented by the personality from the barrels. The bright red berry character is balanced out by subtle leather, the background whisky notes tie in with the light caramel, and the time in barrel has brought in a dryness and tart acidity that makes it moreish where it might otherwise be a bit sticky.
Next up is Felons’ riff on a kriek. If it seems odd stepping down in alcohol after the previous two beers, don’t worry: Wild Cherry holds its own. This is a sour golden ale that conditioned for 14 months in chardonnay barrels before resting on whole Lapins cherries, seeds and all, for two more months in stainless steel. As a result, it’s no longer golden at all: looking at a glass of this is like looking at a jar of strawberry jam.
Before ever meeting the beer, the cherries underwent carbonic maceration: that is, they were put into a stainless steel tank full of carbon dioxide and devoid of oxygen, which causes the cherries to ripen, go all sweet and squidgy, and start to fall apart. Under normal conditions the fruit would rot, but the carbonic maceration process prevents this from happening. Instead, you get super ripe cherries that begin to ferment inside their own skin… and it’s at this point that the beer was added to the cherries.
On the nose there’s sweet fruit and marzipan, and a little Brett funk. In the mouth, the acid is more dominant than any sweetness, and it almost brings to mind an artisanal balsamic glaze. This beer drinks a bit like a chilled red wine – with extra acidity, of course. It’s a drink-at-sunset-on-a-yacht kind of beer. But if you can’t manage that, looking over the Brisbane River isn’t a bad substitute.
Woof. The Depths is disgustingly luxurious.
Felons’ imperial stout took the trophy for Champion Strong Beer at the 2020 Royal Queensland Beer Awards. It made sense to the Felons crew to level up this beer even further by putting it into Starward barrels – so fresh they’re still dripping – to soak up the whisky goodness. It only took four months for the beer to take on the best of the Starward character (more isn’t alway better – it’s about getting just the right influence) and pick up an extra percent or two of alcohol, and then the brewers moved the delightfully mutated beast into stainless steel to age for a further 15 months.
Jet black with a fat mattress of brown foam on top, The Depths has just about every flavour note you’ve ever heard of from a great barrel-aged stout, all woven into one beer. There’s soft liquorice and molasses, which bring their semi-savoury notes and almost spiciness to the nostrils. Bitter chocolate and sweet dark fruits and booziness blend together into a choc berry liqueur character. The char character of dark coffee brings some real roasty oomph to level out the sweeter notes.
Drink it. Nurse it. Swim in it. Sleep in it. Whatever you can manage.
*There’s a lot of mythology and superstition around making beer: just look into Cantillon’s refusal to remove spiderwebs from their brewery, and the Norwegian brewers who scream at their yeast. Whether it makes a difference or not, I think we can all agree we’re glad it’s there.
Published March 16, 2023 2023-03-16 00:00:00