Go ahead. Name the king of barrel-aged beer in Chicago.
Is it the veteran hand of Goose Island? Maybe the modern-day greatness of Revolution Brewing? Or even Begyle, which won a gold medal in the barrel-aged category at the Great American Beer Festival two years ago?
Well, we would argue that Chicago’s barrel aging king is as clear as it in unlikely: Cruz Blanca Brewery.
Earlier this year, just before the COVID-19 pandemic crushed such enjoyable pursuits, we pit 18 Chicago-area bourbon barrel-aged stouts against one another in a March Madness-style blind tasting until only one was left standing.
That one? Not Goose Island, Revolution or Begyle. It came from Cruz Blanca, the brewery inside a West Loop taco joint.
We admit, we were surprised. Maybe we shouldn’t have been.
We’ve been fans of Cruz Blanca’s barrel-aged beers since they first emerged in 2017, a year after the brewpub was founded. Cruz Blanca released just three barrel-aged beers that year, but they were roundly excellent.
The next year came the real eye opener, when Cruz Blanca released five barrel-aged beers, each with a playful personality and a fresh twist — from an imperial blonde ale made with coffee aged in rum and rye whiskey barrels to stout aged in rum barrels.
Last year’s lineup, anchored by that bracket-winning stout, was just as impressive and even more inventive.
This year’s lineup, which debuts this weekend, sees Cruz Blanca unfurl its biggest barrel-aged lineup to date: eight beers that yet again push the boundaries of what barrel-aged beer can be. Cruz Blanca has finally muscled its way into the conversation of great Chicago barrel-aging breweries.
Cruz Blanca head brewer Jacob Sembrano said interest in the program has grown as has the program itself. Thanks to an online pre-sale — the standard way of selling barrel-aged beer during the pandemic — Cruz Blanca has already sold twice as much barrel-aged beer as it did in 2019.
"This year is the most interest we’ve ever had,” Sembrano said.
The Luchador series, as the brewery’s barrel-aged beers are known, will be released Saturday. All eight beers will be on tap through the weekend at Cruz Blanca (904 W. Randolph St.), where due to the pandemic, outdoor seating will be reservation only.
The first round of bottle pre-sales has already closed, but most of the beers are expected to be back on sale before the end of the year (check Cruz Blanca’s Instagram account instagram.com/cruzblancachi for updates). Until then, here’s this year’s lineup and our thoughts:
Imperial stout aged in 11-year Bardstown Bourbon barrels; 11.5% alcohol
The 2019 iteration of Rey Gordo won the bracket, though Cruz Blanca employs different barrels every year for this beer. Last year was Basil Hayden’s; this year is Bardstown. And while last year’s vintage was superb by the time of the tasting, it benefited from a little age in the bottle. This year’s model is already dialed in upon its release.
Impenetrably black with a huge tobacco-molasses flavor at its core with an interesting fruitiness at the edges — it comes across to me as a tropical banana-melon note — with bourbon heat at the edges. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t also fare well in a blind tasting.
(Bonus points for clocking in at a relatively drinkable 11.5% — appreciably less than Goose Island and Revolution’s 2020 barrel-aged efforts).
Rey Gordo vintages from 2017, 2018 and 2019 blended and aged in American whiskey-finished Spanish sherry barrels; 12% alcohol
There’s one word to describe this beer: Wow.
The wow comes in the audaciousness of blending three barrel-aged stouts and then aging them together for an additional year. And the wow comes in what’s in the bottle: a massive, husky, burly stout rich with tobacco, leather and a licorice note with dark fruit overtones. This is a treat for the most ardent fans of barrel-aged stout.
Sembrano said this is his favorite beer in this year’s lineup: "It keeps going and going and going and it does not quit.”
Imperial stout aged in South American rum barrels with banana, Oaxacan coffee, piloncillo sugar, and vanilla; 12.5% alcohol
This beer was an eye opener when introduced last year: fun, tasty and the rare stout to successfully incorporate banana flavor.
I liked that attempt a bit better; it was more delicate than this year’s version, and an excellent example of a beer loaded with flavors done with elegance and restraint. But a bolder version of Tarzan Boy in 2020 is exactly what Sembrano said he was after.
He said experiences seemed to vary last year with this beer, including people who complained they didn’t get much banana flavor. This year, he said, he wanted to avoid that outcome, seeking to make a beer that is “unquestionably banana” by incorporating “more of everything — more banana, more coffee, more vanilla.”
Imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with sweet cherry, cinnamon and spices; 11.5% alcohol
A cherry cola note runs through this beer though the cinnamon claws forth as the beer inches toward room temperature. The rye barrels give the beer a light spice and drying note. Bandito could use a touch more heft and maybe a dark chocolate oomph right in the middle of the sip. But, still, it’s tasty.
THE “BLONDE” BEERS
Imperial blonde ale aged in bourbon, rum and rye whiskey barrels with Sparrow Coffee and lactose; 11% alcohol
This is the third year in a row for this beer that goes into barrels blonde, but winds up reddish-amber due to time interacting with the oak and a dose of coffee (both beans and cold brew). As always, it’s delicious: sweet, lush and fruity with a big burst of coffee and a bit of oaky bite in the finish. The definitive brunch beer.
Imperial blonde ale aged in bourbon, rum and rye whiskey barrels with chocolate, coconut and almond; 11.5%
Sembrano says this beer is mostly an attempt at having fun, both for himself and the drinker.
“There are some very serious beers in this lineup and some very not serious beers," he said. "This one is not to be taken too seriously.”
Coco Fantasma pops with a cherry note even though it has no cherry in it; the aroma reminds me of an Old-Fashioned. Not to be taken too seriously, perhaps, but still an expertly deployed amalgamation of flavor where no one single ingredient stands out. The coconut and almond are used to excellent effect while the chocolate hovers in a supporting role.
RICE IS NICE
El Pop Star
Imperial rice ale aged in American whiskey finished Spanish sherry barrels; 11.5%
The closest approximation to the base beer here is a barleywine. However, with 70% rice in the mash, Sembrano is creating something exceedingly rare in American beer: a “ricewine.” (They called it an “imperial rice ale” to avoid confusion, both with sake and also because they worried no beer drinker would know what to make of the term “ricewine.”)
The rice used is what Sembrano called a particularly aromatic varietal grown in North Carolina. He said he gets a strong vanilla note from it.
El Pop Star also soars with notes of honey, grass and graham cracker in a deeply approachable and light body despite the booziness within. This beer walks a fine balance of soft fragrant floral fruitiness (in part due to the sherry barrels in which the beer was aged) and muscularity in the finish that will likely round out with a little age in the bottle.
This is a prime example of Cruz Blanca’s barrel-aged work precisely because it’s unlike anything you’ll find from another brewery.
Imperial rice ale aged in Italian muscatel barrels with white vermouth botanicals; 11% alcohol
This is same “ricewine” base beer, but gets a wholly different treatment. Ingredients added to the beer meant to emulate white vermouth include agave nectar, verjus (unripe grape juice), Mexican chamomile, Spanish dried orange, Egyptian dried lemon, dried ginger root and dried apricot.
Sembrano expects Tigre Blanco to be “the most polarizing for people” in the lineup.
Well, I love it.
Those vermouth flavors leap from the glass; dry and fruity, smelling more like a cocktail than beer. It’s a very elegant experiment, with grape and pineapple undertones.
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