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Industry • July 13, 2020

Cigar City Brewing's Barrel Aging History

With more than one hundred and twenty unique barrel-aged beer labels to our name, Cigar City Brewing has developed a reputation as an ambitious player in the niche world of wood-aged craft beer. Come join us as we explore the history of our barrel-aging program, the origins our barrel-aged beer club, and what we’ve got planned for the future of wood-aged CCB beers.

Early in the brewery’s history, Brewmaster Wayne Wambles wanted to explore the processes and techniques involved in these time- and labor-intensive beers and develop his own unique approach to them. Much of this approach follows similar steps as other craft breweries: after brewing and fermentation is complete, certain malt-forward, strong, and typically dark-colored beers are transferred to wooden barrels that have been sourced from wineries and distilleries around the world. Beer is added to these second-use barrels with the goal of extracting wood flavors and aromas, imparting some qualities of whatever wine or spirit was previously held in the barrel, and allowing for oxygen ingress to evolve and mature the beer. Wambles sought out not only common wooden vessels like bourbon barrels, but rarer, more exotic barrels and woods that were involved in the maturing of tequila, Sauternes, gin, and others not typically used to age beer. He also embraced the tropical location of Cigar City Brewing and aged beers in non-climate-controlled buildings that allowed for a more rapid extraction of flavor and aromas. The results of these barrel-aged experiments earned the brewery an international reputation as a brand that was taking wood-aged beer in exciting new directions.

Early entries into the CCB barrel-aged oeuvre included Barrel-aged Big Sound Scotch Ale, several Barrel-aged Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout variants and the Campeador series of strong ales and stouts. Not satisfied to stick to traditional barrel-aged styles and ingredients, Wambles and company expanded their wooden reach in subsequent years to include Belgian-style tripels (Hapex Legomenon), saisons (Guava Groove), and sour ales (Swerve). If there’s a strong beer style out there, odds are that Cigar City Brewing has subjected a beer in that style to wood-aging.

Collaborations have also presented opportunities for Wambles and his brewing team to further hone their skills by learning about approaches to wood-aging beer at other breweries and facilities. Bamburana, an Imperial Stout aged in whiskey and brandy barrels brewed in collaboration with fellow CANarchy brewers Oskar Blues Brewery, offered a unique opportunity not only to blend beer from two different types of barrels, but also to infuse the blend with amburana wood spirals, adding a gingerbread quality to this already complex collab. Barrel-aged Paleo Pinhead Imperial Stout, brewed with our friends at London’s Beavertown Brewery, and Los Leñadores, a collab with the inimitable Firestone Walker Brewing Company, both offered chances to take a peek into fellow craft brewers’ barrel rooms and pick their brains on their individualistic spins on wood-aged beers.

But how do these ambitious projects end up in the hands and glasses of beer lovers? El Catador Club was founded in 2013 to deliver some of these barrel-aged beers to CCB’s most dedicated followers. “The club came out of necessity and neighborly consideration,” said El Catador Club Manager Micki Bell. “In 2013, our tiny brewery was so busy keeping up with demand for our year-round brands like Jai Alai IPA that we could only brew beers headed for barrels very infrequently. The sporadic releases and extremely limited quantities of these beers created some crazy days in our Taproom and long lines to purchase these beers that would sometimes stretch into the residential neighborhood that abuts the brewery. The hectic nature of these barrel-aged releases forced the brewery to create a more manageable way to get these beers into our fans’ hands.”

Since the first club release in 2013, members have been treated to a wide variety of wood-aged beers that exhibit the breadth of talent at Cigar City Brewing, including Amplitude, a Chocolate Bourbon Barrel-aged Doppelbock, to Criminal Commission, a Rum Barrel-aged Bananas Foster-inspired collaboration with California’s Bottle Logic Brewing, to Double Barrel-aged Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, a beer that currently ranks as the 20th highest ranked beer of all time on the Untappd app. Each release has aimed to highlight a finely crafted recipe, a carefully selected barrel, the effects of oxygen and temperature, and the fleeting moment in time when these elements are in harmony. More info on El Catador Club can be found at elcatadorclub.com.

As the creator and architect of the brewery’s barrel-aging program, CCB’s Brewmaster Wayne Wambles has watched as other talented brewers on his staff have made their mark on the barrel and wood-aged program in recent years. As plans for barrel-aged projects for 2021 and beyond begin to take shape, Wambles is again at the helm of the wooden ship.

“We are delving into new approaches, some with a more tropical theme and others that will be composed of new base beer styles,” said Wambles. “There will also be some familiar releases which reflect back to the brewery’s earlier days.”

What will these future barrel-aged creations look, taste and smell like? Only the barrels know…

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