Two minutes after I enter the Harmon Tap Room back in October 2014, Jesse Holder embraced me with a warm hug in the form of a barrel-aged strong ale - a generous pour of Olde John Barrel Blend, which touched two barrels - one whiskey barrel and one wine barrel - then blended.
Sure, it was just beer, but no ordinary ale; more of an evolution into a higher form in memory of someone in a higher place.
The Olde John Barrel Blend, Harmon Brewing Co. head brewer Jeff Carlson's baby, hit the barrels last May, with bottles on shelves the following December. The strong ale pays homage to former Parkway Tavern manager John O'Gara who passed last March. "John loved the Harmon NW Biennial Brew strong ale," explains Holder, director of brewery operations at the Harmon Brewing Co. "A single release, John called it one of his favorite Harmon beers. When he passed, Jeff wanted to pay tribute to him. All the proceeds from the first keg at the Parkway went to his family." The Dry Fly Distilling barrels were acquired the day before the Olde John went in, so it drew plenty of whiskey.
The Olde John kegs sold out in two hours, through Tavour craft beer delivery service.
A true test of willpower: waiting months, years, to drink a beer. But some suds benefit from a little aging. They're like the Mathew McConaughey of beer, evolving and maturing in flavor intensities and taste complexities.
Over the past decade or so, the conditioning of beer in barrels recycled from distilleries and wineries has become a significant trend among craft breweries ... and beer geeks can't seem to get enough of these boozed-up or sour gems. Your typical candidate for barrel aging is found in the strong, age-able beer (imperial stouts, barleywines, old ales, wild ales, Belgian strong ales, etc.). While oak barrels were once the normal container used for aging and shipping beer, nowadays craft brewers use them to impart certain flavors and depth to their beer. And then there are sour beers, which seem to be everywhere lately, popping up on the menus of hip restaurants and piquing the interest of beer geeks and casual drinkers alike. And while these brews might taste weird to the novice palate, they have staying power.
Experimenting with sours is not just something a brewer can tinker with casually - it requires a big investment of time and money, not to mention praying to the beer gods. Sours usually achieve their flavor using bacteria such as lactobacillus and special yeasts - including wild yeasts and the hardy, ravenous brettanomyces, aka Brett - which can easily cross-contaminate a brewery's other recipes. Meticulous cleaning, or sometimes a whole different set of equipment, is required to ensure sour-making doesn't ruin other batches of beer. After fermentation, which can take months, a sour typically ages for up to a few years, often in oak barrels that formerly house bourbon, whiskey and wine. At the end of this multi-year investment, sours can still come out tasting off and ultimately unsellable.
South Sound brewers are diving into the Brave Barrel World. Three Magnets Brewing Co. head brewer Pat Jansen lives and breathes fermentation. Engine House No. 9 head brewer Shane Johns excels at sour beers, and his bosses are building him a new barrelhouse in Tacoma's Stadium District that will increase his barrelage 10-fold.
And then there's Harmon Brewing Co. The brewing company's barrel program was in the works for a year and a half before it officially launched December 2013. Initially, it was a three-barrel system with a straight-to-keg carbonation. Of course, end result was a mystery - some of the early barrel beers were over-carbonated; some under-carbonated. Today, Harmon's barrel beers hit the carbonation tanks before the kegs.
Holder is having more fun than a barrel of monkeys with his barrel program. And he has only begun to scrap the barrel.
In the mid-'00s, Holder was a host and busser at the downtown Tacoma Harmon Brewery & Eatery before his mother, Carole Ford, partnered with owner Pat Nagle. After a run with real estate and a stint in China teaching in schools, he came back to Harmon, eventually commanding its beer program. At the time, head brewer Jeff Carlson and production manager Bill Lundeen were experimenting with a few barrels.
"Jeff has an amazing ability to create recipes, and Bill is a walking encyclopedia of barrel knowledge," says Holder. "Together, it's a barrelhouse dream."
Barrel tasting isn't easy at the Harmon Tap Room. Last October, when Holder and I pulled nails and sampled barrel goods, we had to squeeze past piping, hoses, tanks, fermenters and spouting beer, dodge busy brewers, slide under barrels - half of them jammed into crevices. As we pulled barrel nails above our empty tulip glasses, Lundeen was adding pumpkin to mash for another round of their Fall Ball Imperial Harvest Ale, laughing at what must have looked like a game of Twister. I tasted a dozen or so barrel-aged beer offerings inside 30 minutes.
I had to use all my muscles again in two subsequent visits to the Harmon barrels. As you can guess by the brewery room's configuration, flagship beers and seasonals dominate the Harmon production. That's about to change; I'll tap that in a moment. ...
October barrel samples included a cherry sour aged in Tacoma winery 21 Cellars barrels, an apricot tart and Caspar Ghost Pepper Peach Sour, which was part of the Harmon's daily 12 Beers of Christmas last December. The Steep and Deep Winter Ale aged in a third-use Dry Fly whiskey barrel was released in January 2014.
The Barrel/Tap Room Reserve Series Super Samurai Barley Wine had a limited bottle release in spring 2014. It was a single hop barleywine with zesty citrus flavors before it hit the wood. It mellowed out after six months in the Pinot Noir barrels. Chocolate and caramel notes drew applause. I imagined myself walking into a small cabin warmed by a wood stove from an all-consuming blizzard and cracking open a bottle of this warming as hell brew. It's simply comforting and absolutely fantastic. There's ample Super Samurai still in barrels.
Their Tap Room Reserve Series Barrel Aged Saison - Harmon Mt. Takhoma Blonde fermented and aged in red wine barrels with two different strains of saison yeast, was released in July. While fermenting in the barrel, Carlson also added some candied ginger and three different tea blends from Ubi's tea, herb and spice shop on Sixth Avenue.
We pulled the nail on their Drink This White IPA, which was fermenting with pineapple. The medium-bodied IPA with three different malted barleys was brewed for the Tacoma Art Museum's "Ink This! Contemporary Print Arts in the Northwest" exhibit. It was heavy on the pineapple and needed more time. We laughed at naming it Rethink This.
Down on all fours with one leg extended, we sampled a nameless pale wort fermenting with berry tea from Ubi's. It carried a lovely light sour pale ale taste. Naming Harmon beers is a group process.
Shoved in a corner, the Raspberry Blonde was too tart. It has a dandelion taste, which means the bacteria had their work hats on.
After the October barrel-aged beer tasting, Holder, Lundeen and I leaned against the Tap Room's outside fence; their faces beaming with hope. The duo dreamed of turning the back area of the Tap Room into a barrel-aged beer bar with leather couches, 10 ounce pours of their barrel beers plus a few guest barrel-aged beers.
Thursday, I discovered their dream is damn near a reality. Standing in the middle of the Tap Room's back room, Holder points where the 55 barrels will stack. The room will take on a cellar feel, but the games will remain on the big screen.
He beamed as he told me his barrelhouse program is a go.
Then, he pointed through the wall toward the Harmon downtown, announcing 35 barrels will be rolled into the original brewing room on Pacific Avenue, where he hopes to fill four barrels a month until reaching the capacity number, letting them age as he adds. A Harmon's Hop Coffee shop will also be erected in the downtown barrelhouse, where you can hang with the barrels as you sip a blend of Bluebeard coffee and Harmon beer reductions.
Holder has another 20 or so barrels floating in his head looking for a home.
The barrel program will be separate from the other Harmon products - restaurants, flagship beers, seasonals and Hop Coffee. The barrel program won't grow until it can finance the next step ... but the next step is now.
The Saison will remain in constant production, with 10-ounce pours and no growler fills.
The Shinto Sour Cherry is Carlson's recipe, aging Harmon's Amber Ale with cherries. He's a huge amber fan. The Shinto will be released this month in 375ml bottles.
The White IPA I tasted in October? Meet Kamehameha's Crown - a blend of the Drink This White IPA aged with pineapple and the Harmon Point Defiance IPA. It's a delicious wine-y IPA. "Our beers blend well because they are so well-balanced," boasts Holder. "We can go in any direction we want." Kamehameha's Crown is also earmarked for a March release, also in 375ml bottles.
The Raspberry Blonde's dandelion funk from October has faded. With some carbonation, it should pop. Lundeen created the blonde raspberry 26 pounds per red wine barrel. "We'll add another ten or fifteen pounds of raspberries during the kegging to freshen it up," says Lundeen. "You never know what's going on with the souring in the barrel. Some of the barrels we'll inoculate with specific cultures, others we rely on the barrel and whatever happens happens." It will leave the barrelhouse sometime between May and July.
"We don't want to flood the market. We'll release the ‘5 Liter Farmhand' saison (farmhands were paid five liters of saison in Belgium back in the day) on a continual basis," says Holder, revealing the name of the saison. "We'll unleash the Shinto and Kamehameha this month, followed by the Raspberry Blonde.
In a year, Ivan will be released - a Russian Imperial Stout aged in red wine barrels, although it's named after the famed B&I Shopping Center resident gorilla. "It's ready, but it's only going to get better with some sour characteristics," adds Holder.
Although it's growing, Holder still considers Harmon's barrel program in the experimental stage. He'll soon add white wine barrels to the mix of whiskey and red wine barrels. Lundeen is anxious to move on to Belgians.
It would be very easy for the microbreweries to be suspicious of each other as they all fight over such a small piece of the pie. But for the most part, there's a convivial attitude that a rising tide lifts all craft breweries. Most of them are friendly, realizing that their competition is the multinational conglomerates, not each other. The news Engine House No. 9 will build a barrelhouse a football field away from his Tap Room barrelhouse doesn't concern Holder. It actually excites him. "The more the merrier, I say," he remarks. "Let's put Tacoma's barrels on the map."
Patience is a virtue, at least when you're aging beer.
HARMON TAP ROOM, 204 St Helens Ave., Tacoma, 253.212.2725
HARMON BREWERY & EATERY, 1938 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.383.2739