The Story Of... is a series in which we pay homage to notable Australian craft beers. They could be trailblazing beers that have redefined the scene, iconic beers with a place in history or beers that simply stand out from the crowd for one reason or another.
Over the past couple of years, we've turned the spotlight on Little Creatures' internationally recognised Pale Ale, fellow West Australians Feral and their Watermelon Warhead, Boatrocker's beloved Ramjet imperial stout, Bridge Road's Chevalier Saison and the beer that started the Mountain Goat story almost 20 years ago, Hightail Ale. Now it's the turn of another barrel aged stout, this time Moon Dog's Black Lung, set to hit taps and shelves this week in its seventh incarnation.
The Abbotsford brewery has released beers under the Black Lung name every year since 2011, each aged in a different type of oak from its predecessors. The original commercially released version [Still possibly our favourite Moon Dog beer to date at Crafty Towers – Editor] took its beauty sleep in bourbon barrels, while number IV caught some Zs in fresh American oak (and later took out Champion Porter and Stout title at the inaugural Craft Beer Awards) and VI was laid down to rest in Starward whisky barrels.
With the 2017 release looming large, The Crafty Pint's Graham Frizzell sat down with Moon Dog co-founder Josh Uljans to chat about the annual release's storied past and what avid fans can expect from this year's release.
Firstly, what's in store for Black Lung VII?
Josh Uljans: Essentially, it'll be the same base beer we've done: our heavily peated oatmeal stout that presents with deep chocolate, coffee, roasty and intensely smokey flavours. This year, [the base beer] will be aged in Merlot barrels from McLaren Vale, South Australia. We're pretty excited about that!
The barrels are French oak and the end result will have overt fruit character. I think [the Merlot barrel ageing] will compliment the beer really well.
What inspired the Black Lung name and its accompanying artwork?
JU: The name talks of the smokey elements, the dark, abrasive smoke and roast characters. But the name is actually a reference to Zoolander. Most of our beer names are an homage [or a] reference to pop culture which we love. It's a little tongue in cheek while channeling something we find amusing. And Zoolander is a very amusing film!
The artwork was done by our wonderful designer Loren Tanis, who's been working with us for eight years. Long before Moon Dog was even a thing she was helping us conceptualise. The artwork originally came from something that looked a little bit like the anti-smoking images on the back of cigarette packages. We stuck a cigar in there to reflect the smoky character of the beer.
It made sense to add another cigar each year and slowly fill up the mouth of the skull. This year it'll have seven in there! [Laughs]
NB: In the end it appears seven cigars in one mouth was too many and the skeleton's suit pocket has been brought into play...
When was the beer first conceived?
JU: Black Lung was one of the first five beers we brewed on a homebrew scale prior to having a full production facility back in 2010. It was first brewed for Josie Bones, one of the bars we partnered with for the first Good Beer Week, and it was aged in bourbon barrels. This was Black Lung "Ground Zero" [rather than the original bottled release].
We only released [the original] Black Lung as a one-off beer. We really loved it, people really loved it and we thought it was a pretty cool concept that no one else [in Australia] was doing at the time. Then we thought: "Why not go with a different barrel next time?"
What did you hope to achieve with the series and this year's release?
JU: It's amazing how different barrels have influenced essentially the same beer. There have been some considerable differences each time. In some instances, the smoke characters have been muted and in others it was amplified.
When we used Great Southern Distillery's [whisky] barrels for Black Lung II, it was incredibly, intensely smoky as the peat character was retained. When you [age a beer] in whisky barrels there are some flavours that are shared between the base and the whisky character that's coming in.
With this year's release there will be a lot more oak, raisin and dark stewed fruit characters coming through. What this will do to the smoke character I'm not too sure.
It was first released at a time when there wasn't a lot of experimentation going on at the pointy end of the craft beer spectrum. It was a pretty bold beer back then and it's still a pretty bold beer these days. It makes the beer landscape pretty exciting with its huge amount of variety.
Was the series inspired by other beers?
JU: Not really... When I think back to 2010, [there weren't that many] beers brewed with peated malt or aged in barrels available in Australia. To an extent, we weren't inspired so much by individual beers but by the ethos of brewers like Nøgne Ø, Rogue, Dogfish Head, Stone and other brewers who didn't worry too much about convention.
We're not really interested in copying what other people are doing. We take a huge amount of influence from people who have done really cool things in the past, but our job here is not to replicate. [Instead] it's to channel the energy and [creativity of other peers], applying it on our own way.
Given Moon Dog has tended to favour limited release beers with a quirky point of difference, where does the Black Lung series fit in?
JU: It's one of the few beers we redo. We want to be making new [one-off specialty beers] as much as we possibly can, so it's not often we revisit a release. We've probably done 50 one-off bottled releases – at a guess. There's only a half dozen that get re-released.
Black Lung is the only one we have done year after year as it's a beer we look forward to [brewing] every year. We love the way the brewhouse smells each year with all that peated malt. We see it as a beer that's quintessentially Moon Dog.
What is the process that goes into brewing each year's batch?
JU: As we do every time with [our barrel aged] beers, we let it sit in the barrel and taste it regularly until we're happy. Whether it's the French oak or PX barrel (as showcased with Black Lung V) the beer takes on that character really quickly, so we then find that point where balance is just right. That's the excitement of the journey.
The original bourbon barrels we owned were bought from eBay. They were from the Barton distillery in Kentucky, but bought from a garage in Altona. They sounded like a rather amusing thing to get when we were still homebrewing out of the basement at my mother's house in Hurstbridge.
Plenty of work goes into ensuring the barrels are nice and clean prior to use so as not to corrupt the beer with wild yeasts. The process is waiting, tasting and smelling – so we can pick the right point to bottle it.
Has it ever been challenging sourcing particular barrels in the past?
JU: There's always challenges with finding barrels! The ideas we have in our heads when we're talking in November or December about what we're going to do with Black Lung [the following year] aren't always feasible. Sometimes the barrels don't exist.
It does require a certain level of planning. Right now wineries, for example, don't want really bright, fresh oak characters. They're looking for second and third use barrels to showcase more fruit characters rather than oak, which means, for us, finding second use barrels is hard. There are other people looking for barrels besides us.
But every single year we manage to find beautiful barrels [of all kinds], and beautiful oak to use. They showcase a different element every time, influencing the [base] beer in a different way. We've used a lot of different spirits [barrels] in the past and this time we thought we'd use wine barrels, [especially] when we have exceptional wine here in Australia. It made a lot of sense to try wine barrels since the PX [barrel-aged] version of Black Lung is absolutely one of my favourites. I think this one will be similar but with its own nuance.
For more on the challenges facing brewers seeking barrels – not least the rising costs – see this article by The Crafty Pint's founder in James Halliday's Wine Companion Magazine.
What have been some classic reactions, good or bad, from those trying either of the Black Lungs over the years?
JU: In the early days, beers of that big bold character were less available, so few people had tried them. People held their misconceptions about what beer was meant to be. Certainly, back then, as much as the majority of people loved it, there were definitely people who felt that it had too much smoke or too much this or that.
People aren't afraid of big flavours in beer these days. Black Lung is far from the biggest beer we do. It pales in comparison to last year's Jumping The Shark, which we released in summer just because we found it amusing!
In the past four years there have been a hell of a lot less people being confronted by Black Lung and more excited that it's coming back again. We get a wonderful insight into people wanting to try a variety of beers beyond your typical pale lager. We have 70 year-olds wandering around drinking Breakfast of Champions (Moon Dog's Bloody Mary-inspired red ale) and 20-year-olds drinking an apple juice infused beer. We want people to enjoy the fun that goes into [what we brew].
What are the future plans for the series?
JU: We're looking at expanding our barrel program more, and taking a lease on a site across the road where we'll have room for a huge number of barrels.
One day we're going to complete the Black Lung circle and get hold of some Islay whisky barrels. We'd really love to do a brandy or even Armagnac version. There's a whole new developing world of craft spirits and people we could work with in future too.
About the author: Graham "Stoutwhiskas" Frizzell is a legally blind beer writer and brewer in the making. You can find his beer writings at Blind Taste Test.