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Barrel-Aged Beer Creates Some "Curiosity"
One of our top beer picks for 2004 was a curious one. No, really, it was. Allagash Curieux ("curious" in French) hails from the Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, ME, which brewed its first batch of beer in 1995 and is one of the few traditional Belgian-style breweries in America. But what makes Curieux so curious is its unique brewing and maturation methods. At Allagash, American Bourbon-making meets the delicate yet powerful Belgian Tripel brewing style and introduces a bold twist for a brewery that prides itself on producing 100 percent Belgian-style ales.
Now the storing of beer in wood barrels is nothing new, and the concept of maturing beer in Bourbon barrels has piqued the interest of brewers and consumers for many years now; however, quite recently, the method has seen much growth, refinement and experimentation among American craft brewers. Many diehard beer lovers have embraced this and have no doubt created some demand, but the method has also intrigued wine and spirit drinkers, who, as a result, are crossing over to the world of better beer. And although modern barrel aging is still young in America, some brewers are creating amazingly complex beers, using everything from American Bourbon to Portuguese Port and French Pinot Noir wood barrels. Allagash Curieux is among these select few.
Brewing and Barrel Process
The process starts with Allagash's Tripel - a sweet, smooth, herbal and strong golden ale at 9 percent alcohol by volume. After the Tripel completes its primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks, it's then transferred into fresh 53-gallon oak Bourbon barrels from the James B. Beam Distilling Co., in Clermont, KY. The barrels are then moved into Allagash's warm conditioning cellars where the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the barrel. This maturation process lasts eight weeks in the barrel, and barrels are used only once.
Bottling and Presentation
Once matured, the beer is pumped back into a stainless steel tank, blended with a fresh dose of yeast and Belgian candi sugar, and then transferred for bottling, where the 750ml bottles are filled, corked, caged, labeled and packaged. The beer is then moved back into the cellars for a third fermentation called bottle conditioning, in which the final addition of yeast and sugar creates natural carbonation in the bottle and an ending alcohol by volume of around 10 percent.
Decanting and Enjoying
Curieux should be stored upright and stored at a cellar temperature of around 55 degrees. For the best taste, bottles should remain undisturbed to allow the yeast to settle. The beer should be served at around 60 degrees and then decanted slowly into a wide-mouthed glass (snifter, oversized wine glass, etc.), taking care not to pour any of the yeast sediment into the glass. The warmish serving temperature will release loads of complexities, like vanilla, coconut, sweet ripe fruit, spicy black pepper alcohol, wood, smoke and a distinct Bourbon tone. Curieux is best enjoyed with smoked or grilled meats like salmon or barbecue, custard desserts or on its own with friends as an ultimate digestif. Curieux is also suitable for further aging in a proper beer cellar.
The batch we sampled was brewed in September 2004 and bottled in December 2004. Only 2040 bottles were released. You can still find Curieux at many of the local better beer bars and stores. Bottles retail for under $15.
What's Next for Allagash
Allagash Brewing Company's founder and president, Rob Tod, has informed us that Allagash is currently brewing the next beer in their Barrel Aged Series - a dark Belgian-style wheat beer brewed with Belgian candi sugar. Currently named "Odyssey," the beer will finish at around 10 percent and make its world premiere at our
Extreme Beer Fest
on Saturday, January 29.
Interview: Rob Tod
Still curious, we asked Rob Tod a few questions about Curiex. Here are his thoughts:
BA: How and why did you craft Curieux?
We stumbled into it ... our 750ml bottles (which we get from France) were delayed in Customs. We had a Tripel bottling run planned, but had about 150 gallons of beer that we did not have bottles for due to the delay. About 4 weeks prior, we had ordered 2 Jim Beam barrels that we did not have any immediate plans for. We figured rather than dump the beer, we could put it in the barrels.
BA: We know what "Curieux" means, but why'd you pick it. What makes it "curious" to you?
To be honest, we were sitting around the lab drinking it after work and thinking about a name. One of the part time guys that was working there that summer wondered what "curious" was in Flemish. We looked it up on the Internet, and the French translation came up as well. We liked the sound of the French translation immediately. We also thought it was a very fitting name for the beer ... chance (the bottle delay) in addition to a lot of curiosity about what the Tripel would taste like from a Bourbon barrel were the reasons we stumbled on this beer.
BA: Were there any risks involved? Were you surprised that it turned out so damn good?
Yes! We were surprised by a couple of things ... first of all, the only space we had in the brewery was in the warm-room where we referment all of our bottled beer, and some of our draft beer. We thought the room may be too warm, but it was the only space we had. About 2 days after filling the barrels, a lot of foam began to push out of the barrel past the bung. When we went to release the pressure, foam gushed out. We figured that a secondary fermentation had begun with the active yeast in the Tripel and sugars left on the inside of the barrel by the Bourbon. The second surprise came when we tasted the foam ... it was great! We decided at that point to make it a beer.
BA: Before Curieux, all of your beers were traditionally Belgian in style. How are people reacting to this American twist of maturing beer in bourbon casks? Do you think they get the concept?
I definitely agree that prior to last year ('04), we were focusing on the more traditional Belgian styles. The first real departure from the very traditional styles was the Allagash FOUR (a Quadrupel). Then the Curieux was a definite departure. Really the main reason we are doing some more experimental styles is so we can "grow" as brewers, and as a brewery. We believed that we had a very good handle on the beers that we were currently brewing (even though we are continually trying to improve quality), and we wanted to explore some new styles, experiment, and learn more. Also these beers are a lot of fun to brew!
As far as reaction, we have been very surprised how much interest there has been in the Curieux. We already have orders for 5 times more Curieux than we had initially projected! I also think people definitely get the concept. Our take on the Belgian brewing culture is that some degree of experimentation with techniques and ingredients is very accepted, and even an important element in making Belgian Styles. I think a lot of people that enjoy trying different Belgian Styles share this view to some extent.
BA: Did you send a bottle to the folks at Jim Beam?
I had not even thought of it ... we should!
BA: What's next for Allagash? We've heard about Odyssey. Tell us more!
We are very excited about the Odyssey ... the next in the Barrel Aged Series, to be debuted at the Extreme Beer Fest. It is a dark wheat beer brewed with candi sugar. We brewed it about 1 year ago, and a portion of it has been aging in Stainless, and a portion has been aging in New Oak Barrels. We plan to blend the two to taste in about 1 week, then bottle it for release in February or early March.
BA: Thanks, Rob.
For more info on Allagash, checkout:
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