Spend enough time drinking in Texas, and you’ll eventually nip a Shiner Bock and some Balcones single-malt whiskey. The beverages are Lone Star liquid icons, bar staples sometimes served side by side. Any close relationship, though, could always be closer.
One fine day, the folks from Spoetzl Brewery, which makes Shiner, among other beers, reached out to Balcones. The Shiner, Texas, brewery professed admiration and proposed a working partnership. The companies riffed on ideas and landed on this winner: Balcones, from Waco, Texas, would brew a Spoetzl beer recipe and distill it, while the brewery would mature beer in the distillery’s used barrels.
This fall, the brewery released the strong, warming, and spirited Spoetzl Märzen in 750 ml glass bottles ($14.99). The bottles were adorned with elegant labels offering information both usual (style, producer, alcohol content, and so forth) and unusual—the Balcones barrels took top billing, a shout-out to a different kind of drinker.
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“It’s really about brand awareness, connecting consumers, and potentially bringing more whiskey-focused consumers into Shiner,” says Gregor Mina, the director of marketing for Shiner’s parent company, Gambrinus, which is headquartered in San Antonio.
Barrel aging is a tasty and tested technique in American beer, with bourbon casks most often seasoning stouts, and red wine–soaked vessels housing sours. For the most part, though, barrels are treated as a means to an end, not a marketing opportunity. Now name-brand affiliation is becoming a marketing tactic to bring new customers into breweries’ carbonated fold.
Recently, Ballast Point of San Diego partnered with High West of Park City, Utah—both owned by Constellation Brands—to release Western Standard, a pre-Prohibition-style lager partly aged in bourbon barrels ($9.99 per six-pack). In April, Budweiser in St. Louis began a cross-platform promotion with Jim Beam of Clermont, Kentucky, pairing Bud with a Beam shot. That alliance was elevated with the recent release of Budweiser’s Reserve Copper Lager, which is aged on the distillery’s used barrel staves. The beer’s label prominently features Jim Beam’s logo, serving as shiny bait to curious consumers.
“Reserve Copper Lager invites bourbon drinkers to find what they love about bourbon in a beer,” says Ricardo Marques, Budweiser’s vice president of marketing, “and similarly invites traditional beer drinkers to diversify their palate.”
Copper Lager is flavored with staves, not aged inside bourbon barrels. The cost of aging beer in thousands and thousands of barrels, enough to quench drinkers’ thirst from coast to coast, would be prohibitive. All that liquor-soaked oak doesn’t come cheap.
Just ask Ross Koenigs. “The figure is astronomical,” says the R&D brewer at New Belgium Brewing’s location in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Koenigs had priced out the cost of releasing a bourbon barrel–aged beer nationwide, which would require 40,000 barrels. That single release would be greater than the annual output of most American breweries. “As you might expect,” Koenigs says, “[the cost estimate] was hundreds of thousands of dollars—barrels, racks, new infrastructure, dumping facilities, and literally building a whole new warehouse.”
In search of alternative methods to deliver barrel-aged character to beer, Koenigs traveled to Kentucky distilleries, including Clermont’s Knob Creek. During a visit there, he outlined his problem. “They said, ‘Well, follow us,’” Koenigs says. “‘Let us show you our dump floor.’”
When the distillery’s employees emptied barrels, chunks of charred wood—the stuff that flavors and colors bourbon—exited alongside the liquid. Workers collected the soaked, fire-darkened wood in big troughs. “They said, ‘Pick that up and rub it,’” says Koenigs, who picked up the waste product. “Sure enough,” he says, “it had the most pungent bourbon flavor. I thought, Okay, now we’re cooking here.”
During barrel aging, Koenigs explains, beer mostly interacts with char—the wood’s top layer—which tends to break off in the barrel when it’s moved. By circulating a 9% ABV rye-driven ale in large vats containing the wood bits and long spirals of oak soaked in Knob Creek bourbon, New Belgium could arrive at the desired sensory profile with a minimal investment of space and time.
“We circumnavigated the aging challenge that would have taken tens of thousands of feet of warehouse space and thousands of barrels and condensed it down to 70 square feet,” Koenigs says. “The best part is that the extraction process takes 48 to 72 hours to [yield] finished quote-unquote ‘barrel-aged’ beer.”
Called Oakspire, and featuring Knob Creek on the label, the fall release (around $13.99 for a six-pack) tastes like a beer version of diluted Knob Creek—all the vanilla lushness minus the booze burn. Says Koenigs, “The goal is, really, to speak to whiskey drinkers that maybe like beer but don’t necessarily go crazy with it.”
New Belgium now buys Knob Creek’s char, and the companies have entered a collaboration agreement that will unfold this fall. “You’re going to see a lot of brand activation between our two teams,” Koenigs says, “both on-premise and off-premise.”
Partnerships between breweries and distilleries speak to the potential bottom-line value of increased and shared brand awareness. Inspired by the Balcones collaboration, Spoetzl is planning alliances with other Texas producers. Another liquor company? “Not to give anything away,” Gambrinus’s Mina says, “but it might not be a distilled product.”
Buzz, it seems, doesn’t come from alcohol alone.
Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer (out September 2019).