Despite the name’s Scottish roots, for me, this story starts not in the Highlands, but on the Wirral. That is the location of the Glen Affric brewery and taproom.
In the last couple of years, I have spotted the brewery’s distinctive antlers logo appearing more and more frequently in pubs and off licences throughout the Wirral, Cheshire and beyond. To be fair, as a whisky nerd, my eyes are also instantly drawn to anything boozy whose name begins with “Glen”! What I’ve encountered through the 30+ Glen Affric beers that I’ve tried to date, is a desire to experiment and perfect [ed: there are now over 100 different beers from them according to the Untappd app!]. Sure they’ve got some quality staples as their core range of beers, but the sheer number of different expressions that have come out of their taps that push the boundaries of beer flavours and styles is both ambitious and admirable. Mango Milkshake IPA anyone?
The Glen Affric brewery gets its name from a glen near the village of Cannich, which is where brewery owners, the McCormick family, hail from. The family actually have the rights to build a new brewery back near the family home but for now their output comes from the Birkenhead-based brewery. Along with the brewery unit, the McCormicks also have a unit on-site in which they are maturing some of their brews in old whisky casks – and that’s where my two boozy passions collide. I’ve always enjoyed a barrel-aged beer but have never really had the chance to taste the before and after, until now…
The team at Glen Affric have released a collection of 6 barrel-aged versions of their own bestsellers via the Barrel Series:
- Speyside BA Black Brose (Porter)
- Islay BA Black Brose (Porter)
- Speyside BA Medal of Mosaic (IPA)
- Islay BA Medal of Mosaic (IPA)
- Speyside BA Atomic Orange (Pale Ale)
- Speyside BA Highland Suntan (Even Paler Ale)
For this exercise then, given the winter climate, I’ve started with a comparison tasting (triple tipple) between their core range oatmeal porter Black Brose and its Speyside and Islay barrel-aged versions. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it! Well, in fact, I don’t have to do it, but like I said above, I’ve wanted to do it for some time, so, preamble over, here we go…
Glen Affric – Black Brose (Oatmeal Porter) 4.2% ABV
That black body instantly lets out a roasty malt flavour whilst it is being poured into the glass. As soon as it hits the lips there’s a blast of dark chocolate and coffee – like the kind of coffee flavour that you’d get in a coffee flavoured chocolate, if you know what I mean? The finish has a Brazil nut type of tang to it too – again one that has been properly coated in chocolate. The body is not quite as thick as I’d expect from a traditional Porter but there is a creaminess to it, which I believe comes from the oats – I’m not enough of a beer nerd to know what else the oatmeal imports, but it’s good!
Glen Affric – Speyside Barrel-Aged Black Brose (Oatmeal Porter) 4.8% ABV
Well, we start with more of the same chocolate, coffee and nutty notes but there is now noticeably an even creamier texture to this and a sweeter, smoother finish. There’s a clear bit of oak to the flavour profile but only really on the finish – the oak appears both in terms of the woody flavour and by adding a little bit of warming spice to the finish. The barrel-ageing has clearly led to more of a fuller mouth flavour and profile. That extra 0.6% ABV might be doing some additional work to the experience too but the barrel is royally rounding this out. Not to take away from the original BB, but given the choice of the two at the bar, I’d now choose this one every time.
Glen Affric – Islay Barrel-Aged Black Brose (Oatmeal Porter) 4.7% ABV
It seems that we are talking Islay straight away from the nose – before the glass even gets close to the lips, Islay peat smoke and oak dominate the flavour. With the first sip, it is like the chocolate coated Brazil nut and coffee grounds flavours have reversed roles with the barrels – entirely different to the Speyside BA. For the Speyside BA the oak just complemented the original profile. Here the barrel has simply taken over. It’s quite the Marmite experience too [ed: It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see a Marmite flavoured beer doing the rounds fairly soon, come to think of it!] The Hebridean Island’s signature thick, medicinal, earthy smoke will often divide a room, and certainly scare off the uninitiated. That’s why you tend to leave an Islay whisky to the end of the night – or just dedicate the whole night to it. It will take over. As with all Islays though, after a couple of mouthfuls and a few minutes later, you can get over the initial shock and you do get used to it. Oak, dark chocolate and nut are still the forerunners of the flavours beneath the peaty smoke cloud, and the oak maturation has made for a smoother body again when compared to the original Black Brose. Certainly a beer to try as an experiment, a smoky treat or for the seasoned peathead.
Going back to the Speyside BA from the Islay one, and you can really appreciate a rounder sugary sweetness to the Speyside BA too – real caramel-like throughout.
So there we have it. A very interesting initial insight into the effects of a barrel on a beer. The exact origin of the barrels remain a secret kept close to the brewery’s chest, but their influence is undeniable, and, all the better for it, in my opinion. Roll on Part 2!
Full disclosure: I was gifted a can of each of Barrel Series beers by Craig McCormick of Glen Affric himself following a visit to the Taproom, but I am under no obligation to do anything other than sample their wares. I’ve bought the regular versions of the beers myself and this post is intended as an honest, independent and fair review of the beers and a personal insight into the effects of ex-whisky barrel-ageing on beers – it is not intended as a promotion, and, as always, please drink responsibly.