It is really open to interpretation as to what a good craft beer can accomplish. Some craft beer drinkers say that a well-made beer should make you think. Others say that a craft beer is a liquid manifestation of the brewer’s skill and ability to brew to a certain style. In Summit’s Union Series #5 Old Blaggard, Damian McConn, head brewer at Summit, has created a craft beer that tells a story rich in history, creativity and flavor. I sat down with him and listened raptly as he explained all that went into bringing Old Blaggard to fruition.
The Union Series is a line of Summit beers where Damian combines new and obscure ingredients that are featured in older recipes. Damian likes to showcase the Victorian and 19th century brewing styles in the Union Series. Former Union Series beers included an Irish Double Stout and a 3X Mild ale. Summit’s suppliers will contact Damian and tell him what unique ingredients they have and from there Damian figures out what he will be able to do with those ingredients. Odyssey Malt from Scotland, Endeavor hops from England, and invert sugar, a remarkably difficult type of sugar to get to the United States, were the main players in Old Blaggard. Damian also found an old recipe from 1870 in Burton on Trent and used that as his inspiration for Old Blaggard.
What the heck is invert sugar, you ask? Invert sugar boosts the gravity in a beer, flavor for aroma, but is not the same as chucking bags of dextrose into the kettle to boost the sugars. These sugars are already caramelized and will give the beer an added depth of flavor. The new were the malt and the hops, the old was the recipe and the invert sugar was the obscure factor. As with anything in a brewery, forethought was key in this process. “We wanted to age it for at least six months so it took a lot of organization and planning to get it out to the market in November.” Damian said with a laugh, “It took a hell of a lot of work, but we eventually made it happen.”
Listening to Damian talk about the history of how Barley Wines came to be, I felt like I was in a beer history class. His vast knowledge and passion for all things beer make him an incredibly engaging storyteller. Barley Wine is not really a true style of beer, but rather catch-all term referring to beer that was higher in alcohol. This beer was born out of necessity as a result of conflicts and embargo issues that prevented trade from taking place between England and France. UK brewers called it Barley Wine to make it attractive to the aristocracy who were looking for something to replace the wine that they could no longer get at the time. Barley Wine was used for the first time on a label in 1870 by Bass for their Number One Barley Wine. Barley Wines have remained unchanged in the British Isles for the last one hundred years. American Barley Wines are much more bitter and the hops are more up front. Barley Wines typically had dark to amber colors, but are more golden in color within the last 50 years.
Flavorwise, there are notes of toffee, caramel and dark fruit in Old Blaggard. The Yorkshire yeast strain creates some really nice esters in this beer. Damian wanted the mouthfeel to be softer and not have too much of a carbonic bite. It should also be served warmer to allow some of the more delicate flavors to really come alive. In Old Blaggard, Damian showcases the malt, and as a result, the hops are more in the background. “Simpsons Malt double-kilned the malt just for us and that is something that is special,” Damian continues, “Old Blaggard is a fairly dark beer considering that all pale malt was used.”
Old Blaggard pairs excellently with cheeses like Stilton, Blue Cheese or a fine Aged Cheddar. Traditionally, in the UK, this beer was served with the cheese course to end the meal. Old Blaggard will also pair well with heartier meats like roast beef, venison, and certain desserts. Old Blaggard is a beer best served at room temperature in something that will resemble a stemmed wine glass. This is because you want to be able to swirl it. The heat from your hand will warm the beer and the swirling will allow the flavors and aromas to be released and result in an olfactory odyssey that will wow your senses. As a man who loves pairing cheese and beer, I decided to take Damo’s suggestion and give the Old Blaggard a try with some Neal’s Yard Dairy Stilton and Maytag Blue. Starting with the Stilton, the buttery flavor of the cheese went marvelously well with the soft mouthfeel of the beer. The combination brought out a pleasing nuttiness as the two combined. The fat from the cheese also tempered the booziness from the beer, making it really smooth. These two things paired better than Simon and Garfunkel before they started hating each other. The Maytag Blue has a sharp acidity that brought out a light effervescence when it combined with the beer. This sensation made the beer seem a lot brighter, which was interesting since the former combination highlighted the smoothness of the mouthfeel.
There are a couple of elements of the Union Series that Damian is exceptionally proud of. Exposing the craft beer drinker to ingredients they haven’t seen before like the invert sugar in the Barley Wine is something Damian strives for. Damian says, “In the brewing industry, people still don’t have a lot of idea where ingredients come from. People have no idea that barley, not rice and corn, provide the backbone to a beer.” Old Blaggard has given Summit a way to showcase ingredients and a style to tell a story. Beer should tell a story. The Union Series lends itself to that. “I’m a good Irish lad, I like to tell stories.” Old Blaggard is no exception. One sip can transport you to the past because such thought and care was put into this beer.
There’s also an educational aspect to all of these entries in the Union program. Showcasing the ingredients and showcasing the styles is a huge component of this series. Turning some of these preconceived beer style concepts on their head is something that Damian aspires to do with the Union Series. “It certainly showcases creativity, innovation, a different approach to managing beer and running a brewery.” There’s no real restriction in regards ingredients and that is what sets these beers apart.
Summit is celebrating 30 years in 2016 and there are many people behind the scenes who are making sure that they continue to act as a relevant cog in the Minnesota craft beer engine. The Head Brewer at Summit is an enormous part of why Summit continues to garner recognition and new craft beer drinkers. Damian is a font of information and the quality of the Old Blaggard is a direct reflection of that. This beer is a culmination of so much hard work and adroitly reflects the hours of thought and work that went into it. Old Blaggard is also a beer that tells a narrative that goes all the way back to 1870. I cannot put into words how much of a treat it was to sit down with Damo and have a wonderful chat about Union Series #5 Old Blaggard. It is showing up on tap at many different places and if you come upon it at your local liquor store, don’t hesitate to snap it up. It will take the chill out of the cold night’s air and only add to the warmth of this holiday season.
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If you would like more info on Barley Wines, check out a recent Talk Like A Beer Geek article on that very style! Prost!