Skies are gray. Temperatures are dropping. Baseball is finished. (At least in Chicago).
Barrel-aged beer season is back!
Revolution Brewing, which has firmly waded into the annual rite of releasing boozy beers aged in whiskey barrels, is back with a new batch of releases — a whopping 10 of them to come out during the next four months.
The first two, V.S.O.J., a barleywine aged two years in bourbon barrels, and Code Switch, a strong Belgian ale featuring blackberries, will be released in cans Oct. 19 at 4 p.m. at Revolution’s brewery at 3340 N. Kedzie Ave.
Both beers also will be available that day on draft, along with a handful of new limited-edition barrel-aged beers: Turbomora (Code Switch with extra blackberries); Double Barrel V.S.O.J. Cherry Rye (V.S.O.J. with tart cherries, aged in bourbon and rye barrels), BA Lynott’s 2018 Stout (imperial stout brewed with oats, lactose and a touch of smoked malt, aged in bourbon barrels); and Double Barrel Lynott’s 2017 Stout (aged one year in a WhistlePig 10 Year Rye barrel followed by another year in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel).
V.S.O.J. ($35) and Code Switch ($30) will be available in four-packs of 12-ounce cans, with a limit of two four-packs of each beer per person.
Both beers will enter distribution on draft, but V.S.O.J. will only be available in cans at the brewery, and limited amounts of Code Switch will be distributed in the Chicago area and in Indiana. (Code Switch is a collaboration beer with Sun King Brewing of Indianapolis.)
Here are thoughts on those first two canned releases, which were sampled Thursday afternoon at the brewery.
V.S.O.J. (13.8 percent alcohol)
One of the gems of last year’s barrel-aged crop for Revolution was Straight Jacket, a barleywine aged one year in bourbon barrels.
As I wrote at the time of its release: “Endless gorgeous layers of flavor and aroma — raisin, plum, toffee, caramel, molasses, maple and vanilla — merge into one decadent, yet tidy conclusion. Among the key components are just enough dryness and bitterness to balance the finish and make the beer stunningly accessible for that high alcohol content.”
The fact that Straight Jacket won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival last month was no surprise. The surprise was that it only won bronze among 162 entries.
With that breathless Straight Jacket preamble, you probably won’t be surprised to know that V.S.O.J. is a stunner. It redefines barrel-aged barleywine, all the way down to its color. At some angles it looks impenetrably dark — more like stout than barleywine — but its deep ruddy-amber color is evident at others.
Many of the flavors present in Straight Jacket are also at work in V.S.O.J. (which stands for Very Special Old Jacket), particularly molasses, caramel, maple and dark fruit, accented with notes of vanilla and cocoa. The difference is that the flavors run far deeper and even smoother, with nary a trace of alcoholic burn. They have also become accented with a long-charred, roasted middle, presumably from the extra time in the barrel.
V.S.O.J. finishes with light tannic oak character that lends balance and completion to a deep, silky journey.
Not to be missed.
Code Switch (14.5 percent)
If V.S.O.J. is a triumph, Code Switch is a curiosity — albeit an admirable one.
This deep purple brew began life as a traditional take on the Belgian quad — a sweet, boozy, malt-forward style. Yet after a year in barrels, and with an ample infusion of blackberries, Code Switch is hardly identifiable as a quad, which makes Revolution’s description of the beer — “imperial ale aged on blackberries” — honest, even if a bit vague.
As for what’s in the can, there isn’t much precedent. As complex and layered as V.S.O.J. sits on the palate, Code Switch is fairly simple: it’s very fruity — I thought of tea, SweeTarts and even Pop-Tarts in the aroma — and very dry.
Revolution and Sun King Brewing aimed for marked dryness to balance the fruity character — and it worked. Code Switch could easily have turned cloying. It’s not. The dryness is quite stunning and unexpected.
“That’s the curveball we were shooting for,” Revolution brewmaster Jim Cibak. “We wanted to do something different for the style.”
Said Revolution founder Josh Deth: “It’s a hybrid, I guess — its own unique beer.”
As someone in the room pointed out, Code Switch is arguably more reminiscent of dessert wine than Belgian ale.
For that reason it may be a bit of a polarizing innovation. But it’s both well-made and an interesting experiment. Most of what passes for innovation these days in barrel-aged beers amounts to amplifying the sugar, the adjuncts and the gimmicks.
Code Switch runs the other direction, carving a new path that will please some and befuddle others — but which paired quite nicely with grilled steak and garlic mashed potatoes Tuesday night.