One of my goals for the holiday season is to reduce the inventory of my beer fridge and cellar. It’s a little like those year end sales that stores put on, out with the old to make room for the new. The holidays provide an opportunity to open up some of the bigger beers that come in large bottle format. One bottle that I’ve been itching to open up for a while is a 750 mL bottle of Actual’s Conductor Imperial Rye IPA aged in bourbon barrels.
As a general rule I’m a little ambivalent about the effects of barrel aging on IPAs. The bourbon flavors and seem to go better with the chocolate, coffee, and/or caramel flavors of a big malty beer than with the fruity, grassy, and piney flavors of an IPA. However, I’m a big fan of the standard version of Conductor, and I know this beer was a labor of love for Actual. It spent six months in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels that had previously been used by Elevator Brewing to make Bar Bar Barleywine, and the label is made from a thin laminate of wood. The packaging is very attractive, even by the high standards that Actual has set for themselves.
The bottles were first released in late October and I purchased mine directly from the brewery in early November. While most barrel aged beers are well suited for cellaring, the wisdom of that approach is less certain with an IPA because the contribution of the hops will fade with time. To avoid any confusion the brewers have left the following words of wisdom on the label
“Best when fresh this beer will express interesting changes over time, but should be served before January 2015.”
Since we are in the dying days of December I better get to it.
- Brewery: Actual Brewing (Columbus)
- Style: Barrel aged Imperial Rye IPA
- ABV: 8.7%
- IBUs: 47
This beer is a limited release and my bottle is hand labeled as bottle #24 out of 600.
The color of the beer is a deep reddish copper hue that is crystal clear with a massive head of dense, creamy white head that settles out oh so slowly. The clarity of the beer and lacing that is left behind once the head settles are truly impressive. On a scale of 1-5 this beer is a 6 in terms of appearance. The nose is vanilla forward bourbon with notes of caramel from the malts, but relatively little contribution from the hops. The true complexity of this beer only emerges once you start to drink it. Initially you experience bready caramel flavors of the malts accented by a kiss of vanilla from the bourbon. Just as those flavors are registering in your brain the hops punch through and regale your senses with a breath of fresh pine. Finally bourbon gains the upper hand at the finish and lingers on for a few moments afterward. It’s not particularly boozy, a flaw that one sometimes finds in barrel aged beers.
The complexity of flavors all wrapped up in a single beer is a treat. The solid malt backbone of the base beer and the spiciness imparted by the use of rye malts work quite well with the bourbon flavors that come from the barrel. The brewers have hit the sweet spot in terms of infusing the base beer with just the right amount of bourbon character. Among the handful of barrel aged IPAs I’ve encountered this one is the best. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I liked it better than the standard Conductor Imperial Rye where the hops and the rye don’t have to share center stage. Of course that is one of my favorite Columbus beers and not easy to improve upon (click here to read my review from this past summer). I’d be curious to hear any thoughts from those of you out there who tried it when it was just bottled/kegged and the hops were likely more expressive. I do believe there are some bottles left around town (I saw some at Weiland’s Market last week), so if barrel aged IPAs are your sort of thing I’d track down a bottle soon and not wait to dive in.
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.