2013-02-17_17-01-06_951When discussing the greatest brewing states, the same names pop up each time: California, Oregon, and Colorado are on everyone’s list. Michigan and North Carolina continue to make strides. But a real dark horse candidate is Pennsylvania. Consider the following:

  • ► A rich, arguably unrivaled brewing tradition and history.
  • ► The best and most successful US-owned competitor to AB/InBev and Miller Coors mass-marketed lagers in Yuengling.
  • ► Respected and award-winning regional players like Victory and Troegs.
  • ► Entrenched micros that have been making great beer since the late 1900’s (Stoudts, Weyerbacher, Penn)
  • ► Newcomers shaking up the production scene from all corners of the state (Tired Hands, Lavery, Helltown)

Throw in the (very) gradually loosening Blue Laws and vibrant beer weeks in the cultural capitals of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the state of brewing in Pennsylvania has never been brighter. Yet one area this Commonwealth falls short in comparison to other states is that of Prestige Beer. Hype. The White Whales of beer trading circles like Founders KBS, Deschutes Abyss, Cigar City Hunahpu, Three Floyds Dark Lord. Big, barrel-aged beers that throw the beer geeks in a tizzy.

Some may argue that this is not a bad thing. Perhaps there is too much hype in beer. But since I don’t live in Michigan, Oregon, Tampa, or Indiana I have little chance of finding these prestige beers on my local shelves. I do, however, live in Pennsylvania. So the greedy little child in me wants more, despite the plethora of great beer already available to me. I want the barrel-aged barleywines and stouts topping the RateBeer Best of Lists that my friends can’t get. I want to taunt them. I wants to hoards them, my preciousss…

Thus it was with great delight in late 2011 that I read about Victory’s foray into barrel aging with Dark Intrigue- the highly regarded Storm King Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels. Since then, I’ve been able to find and sample four of Victory’s barrel beer projects, with mixed results.

Dark Intrigue

Product-Victory-Dark-IntrigueExpectations were perhaps unfairly high with this one. I was hoping for Pennsylvania’s KBS. What I found was a harsh, boozy, unbalanced affair. You could say that the bourbon overwhelmed everything, but for the exceedingly bitter finish of the heavily-hopped Storm King base beer. Storm King also lacks the body and rich mouthfeel of other imperial stouts that benefit with barrel-aging. It’s been said that founders Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski developed it as a black IPA, and as such was perhaps not the best choice for their first foray into barrels- but hindsight is 20/20, and it would be interesting if the bourbon and hoppy-bite have smoothed over after a couple years in the bottle. Unfortunately, I am the world’s worst beer hoarder, and in fact bristle at the notion that such beers are released before they are primed for consumption. Perhaps some of you cellar-dwellers will let me know in the comments. I’d give it 2.5 hops on our scale of 4. RateBeer says 99. Go figure.

Red Thunder

redthunderSince then the barreled offering have come fast and furious out of Downingtown. Next up was Red Thunder in late 2012, their Baltic Thunder Porter aged in red wine barrels. This one garnered predictably less foaming hype from the mouths of beer intelligentsia, but I found to be quite interesting. The roasty cocoa that dominates Baltic Thunder is rounded out and you get some residual sweetness and some vinous fruit as well (meaning it tastes unsurprisingly a little like red wine). This might be a positive for you, or perhaps not. Again the body of the base beer might be a little thin to stand up and improve with extended aging. Still, an interesting beer that can still be found on the shelves in some Pittsburgh bottle shops.

Oak Horizontal

OakHorizontal_art_finalOne of the victims of Victory’s expansion and fermentation capacity challenges of the past few years has been their beloved Old Horizontal Barleywine. A delicious boozy mix of candied fruits and spicy hops, a sixer of Old Horizontal was for many years one of the best bang-for-your buck purchases a Pennsylvania Alehead could make each year. Victory’s new facility currently under construction should make this favorite available again, so it was with great anticipation I cracked into a beautiful corked-and-caged bomber of Oak Horizontal, the bourbon barrel version of the classic. Which is why I was so disappointed with what I found- as though a shot of bourbon had been dropped in my glass. Make that a double shot. I wanted a complex sipper. I got a very expensive boilermaker. I opened it quite cold, and let it decant and warm up. If anything, the booze just became more overwhelming. If I didn’t have a little thing called grit, (and hadn’t paid $15 for it), this would have been a potential drain pour.

If you have a bottle of Oak Horizontal, do not open it yet. This one is yellow, let it mellow. I never go to RateBeer, except when something wildly differs from my expectations. People seem to find it complex, layered, bourbon well-incorporated, blah blah blah. I’m far from a curmudgeon (at least when it comes to beer). I wanted to like Oak Horizontal like Mulder wanted to believe in little green men. I’m a homer. The world’s most homely cheerleader. Sometimes when I browse beer review sites I think I’m losing my mind. Just trust me and age this one, perhaps until your kids graduate from college. Let’s move on.

White Monkey

WhiteMonkey_art_finalLet’s end on a happy note, shall we? I found the White Monkey, Victory’s popular Golden Monkey Trippel aged in white wine barrels, to be a delightful success. The tart apple and citrus notes of the wine work great with Monkey’s sweet banana esters. Dangerously drinkable, this would be a perfect way to introduce any staunch oenophiles in your life to the possibilities of craft beer. An excellent complement to fish, poultry, soft cheeses, etc. Highly recommended.

So what are the conclusions drawn from Victory’s foray into the wooded arts?

  • ► Bourbon barrel aging, does not, contrary to my previously held opinion, improve every beer by default.
  • ► While cognizant of the cost and time involved in bringing projects like Dark Intrigue and Oak Horizontal to market, I’m of the opinion that Victory should have looked at blending options or extending the aging times before these beers went out to consumers.
  • ► Wine barrel aging of unconventional styles has a ton of potential. White Monkey was one of the better new beers I’ve tried this year.
  • ► We are still in the age of craft beer discovery. Brewers are going to try stuff. Some of it is going to work. Some of it, not so much. It’s just beer and I probably shouldn’t take it so seriously.
  • ► Pennsylvania’s answer to KBS and Dark Lord has yet to be brewed, which is a great opportunity for a state that certainly has the brewing talent to do it.

So Aleheads, have you tried these beers? Do you agree with my assessments, or am I out in the weeds on this one? It wouldn’t be the first time. Let me know.



  1. It would be nice to think that any barrel-aged beer should at least be decent when drunk at its time of release. There is a certain point when “needs to be aged” is a sort of crutch to improve something that doesn’t work initially.

  2. Spectacular post and great reviews! As a Philly Burbs guy who finds plenty of good and not so good reasons to do some critical craft beer “research” at places like Tria, Monk’s, Eulogy, Khyber, Good Dog, Varga, and a host of other great places in Philly, I agree completely with your assessment of the craft beer culture and future of Pennsylvania brewers.

    I’d always put Storm King on the same shelf as KBS or The Abyss (never been crazy or lucky enough to score a Dark Lord) – albeit a few feet down the shelf. It’s a world class though perhaps not beer geek craze-worthy Impy (as you point out).

    As for barrel aging, I couldn’t agree more with your first conclusion point. Hiding an otherwise great (or fair) beer in a barrel for a while may always add some depth and complexity but sometimes it does so at the expense of the overall flavor. I’d argue that some brews suffer from barrel aging – Southern Tier Pumpking, for example.

    Bottom line is that there’s a little bit of Professor Calgione in most craft brewers and we’ll certainly be seeing plenty of interesting combinations and aging options going forward.


    Oh, and you might want to add Texas to that list of great brewing states. If more of their brewers (especially the ones in and around Austin) would – or could – distribute outside of their borders they’d be on everyone’s list.

  3. I had a 2011 Dark Intrigue a few weeks ago and I enjoyed it. The bourbon and oak had faded considerably, but the hops had turned way piney (less bitter though). On the other hand, I had one on the day of the release and loved it (liked it better than the aged version), so there is that. (I’ve got some more ’11 Dark Intrigue if you’d ever like to try it.)

    It’s funny, I was much more impressed with Oak Horizontal than you, and much less impressed with White Monkey. I’m guessing that I’m just bigger into bourbon, though I have also come to the same conclusion that Bourbon barrel aging doesn’t automatically improve the base beer.

    Have you had Otto in Oak? Otto was a smokey mess (who put their cigar out in my dubbel?), but the bourbon barrel treatment improved it. Certainly not a prestige beer or anything, but I liked it.

    Anywho, I agree with your general consensus about PA beer. Totally a big beer state, but little in the way of prestige. Tired Hands seems to be changing that, and their bottles/growlers seem to be making the rounds. I love that place. They’ve had a huge imperial stout in their fermenters/barrels for a while now (according to the board at the brewery), but they say it’s not going to be released anytime soon. Not sure what the deal is there…

    1. Hey Mark. I like bourbon and Old Horizontal, so can’t quite figure out why it didn’t work for me. I’m wondering about variability from bottle to bottle? Hmmm.

      I didn’t like Otto either. Don’t remember seeing the oak version. Thanks for the heads up.

      Haven’t been able to get to Tired Hands yet either but heard great things. I will definitely make a point of it the next time I get over on that side of the state.

  4. Still haven’t seen any of these beers up my way, but you know I’ll set them in my cellar for a few years if I ever do find one. The one that really intrigued me Slouch was the White Monkey. When you told me you found a bottle I read some reviews and I know I’d be all over it. While I agree (Obviouslly) that Bourbon barrels do not make every beer great, I’ve yet to find a beer aged in white wine barrels that wasn’t impressive. Well, unless it was made by Dogfish Head. They’re always the exception to the rule.

  5. Living in Michigan I can still attest to Victory making some of the best beers out there but unfortunately I highly doubt I will see many, if any, of the ones above in my local stores. A white wine barrel aged Monkey? Damn! A bourbon aged Old Horizontal? DOUBLE DAMN! We can’t even get the regular Horizontal here in the past couple of years.

  6. I had a Dark Intrigue last month at a stout tasting. 2nd best beer of the night (behind BB PtF) out of 15 or so.

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