From Golf to Whiskey To Australia, Journeyman Distillery’s Barrel-Aged Craft Beer Fest Was A Decade In The Making

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Barrel-aged craft beers are great – it’s just that simple. True, some are better than others; neither Walter nor I are big fans of wine barrel aged beers, although the occasional merlot barrel beer is good. Depending on the style of beer, different barrels can take the beer from good to great or from great to exquisite.

Gin barrels seem to really well for goses and a few other sours, while tequila barrels also work best on a subset of styles. Whiskey barrels seem to be the most defined, many times you can tell what brand of whiskey barrel has been used on a barrel without being told – Wild Turkey barrel-aged beers stick out like Rudolph’s nose. But I think most people would agree that bourbon barrels work with more styles than any other type of barrel, even better than unused barrels that just impart the oak, vanilla, and tannic flavors, although whiskey barrels probably run a close second for diversity and complexity.

To underscore the fact that beer and spirits go well together, one needs look no further than the venerable shot & a beer, or the depth charge. True, they will get you messed up faster and that is what some people are after, but on the other end of the scale you have distilleries now using whiskey or bourbon barrels that have been used to aged stouts to then age more whiskey. Stouted whiskey is a thing, as the Jameson commercials attest, but I don’t know why they make such a big deal about. New Holland has been doing it for a couple years already.

Click on logo for bigger image so you can see what breweries attended. image credit: Journeyman Distillery

With beer and spirits being passed back and forth from barrel to barrel, it has been a natural evolution to have barrel aged beer festivals. The Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB) in Chicago is probably the one that gets the most play in the US, but there are many others, including Barrels on Bonna, Black Acre Brewing’s celebration of barrel aged beer in Indianapolis, and Brewery Vivant’s Wood Aged Beer Festival in Grand Rapids.

In these cases, it may be a bunch of breweries bringing beers aged in the barrels from many different distilleries, but this past Saturday Walter and I were privileged to attend the first Journeyman Distillery and Friends Festival of Barrel Aged Beers. This festival, as opposed to most others, focused mainly on beers from many breweries but aged in Journeyman barrels. This was a great idea for a festival.

It’s true that spirits and wine are making inroads into the craft beer share of the alcohol market, but here is a distillery (without their own brewery no less) that has worked hard to celebrate craft beer. What’s more, New Holland came to the festival to celebrate barrel-aged beers, and they have their own distillery! They didn’t age in Journeyman barrels, but still wanted to be part of Journeyman’s festival that celebrates barrel-aged beer.

Journeyman Distillery was opened to the public in the fall of 2011 in the old EK Warren Featherbone Factory in Three Oaks, Michigan. The Featherbone building dates back to 1883 and is a beautiful old edifice – reason enough to make the trip up to Three Oaks. EK Warren made a mint from manufacturing two very disparate items, whips and corsets – OK, maybe they go together in some environments. The original maple floors are still in place, while other wood comes from the Welter family farm in Putnam County, Indiana. The wood from their old cattle barn (which came from a one room schoolhouse before that) was repurposed into the tables in Journeyman’s tasting room and restaurant, and a dilapidated corncrib’s slats became décor in the building.

Journeyman owner and distiller Bill Welter and his daughter. photo credit: Journeyman Distillery

Owner and distiller Bill Welter traveled extensively in Britain and Scotland as he pursued further education in golf after  playing on the the Missouri State University golf team for all four years prior to graduation. He worked and lived in St. Andrews, Scotland (the birthplace of golf), waiting tables at night, immersing himself in golf during the day – and accidentally learning a whole lot about whiskey. One whiskey colleague he met in Scotland (Greg Ramsay) later opened a top 50 distillery in Tasmania – yes, the island off of Australia.

When Greg opened a second distillery down under, he convinced Bill to come and work with him. Using the knowledge he gained from Greg and the people in Scotland, Bill and his family embarked to open their own distillery, with Bill travels to learn whiskey as the inspiration for the name – Journeyman, with the twists and turns that life can and will throw at you.

Saturday was the inaugural barrel aged beer festival for Journeyman, so Walter and I expected a first year kind of event, but it turned out that Journeyman & Friends was a well-oiled machine. The credit for this in large part goes to retail manager Frank Quinn and marketing manager Chelsey Erickson, who have taken the extremely difficult task of putting on an inaugural festival and dealing with the thousands of details and problems involved with that.

The festival was born from an idea that started rolling around in Bill’s head 4-5 years ago. They were selling whiskey barrels to breweries, but what happened to them after that was a mystery to Journeyman. Beyond the occasional taste of a beer that had come out of their barrels, it was an unknown.

The crowd at Journeyman and Friends was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. photo credit: Journeyman Distillery

About this same time, Bill and his wife, Johanna, had started a non-profit group called Islay’s Barrel to help inner city kids get some time in the country and have some real adventures. Merging the two ideas, Bill thought it would be great to get the breweries together that had been using their barrels for a celebration of barrel aged beers, while at the same time benefitting Islay’s Barrel to help the kids. Journeyman and Friends was born, and all proceeds from the event going to the non-profit.

It helped that the weather was very nice, in the low seventies and just enough sunshine. There was more than enough room on the Journeyman grounds, and Staymakers Restaurant, on the grounds of Journeyman, was open during the festival and Chef Luke Caenepeel was grilling food that sent a wonderful scent all over the grounds. A staymaker was a person who made corsets, so everything at Journeyman seems to evoke the past and pay tribute to the community and its people.

At the same time, Journeyman was conducting its normal distillery tours during the festival and local dignitaries were judging the beers made in Journeyman barrels for the casual competition portion of the afternoon. All in all, there was more entertainment and learning than most people could handle in one day.

As for the beer, it was tremendous. Being from Indiana, I was proud to see so many Hoosier breweries represented at the festival. Tom Uban at Figure Eight brought his unique “Twinkie” beer, named for a hiking trail at Red River Gorge, and made as a brown sugar imperial red ale. Big Lug brought the BA Gus Chiggins barleywine in Journeyman barrels, and Crooked Ewe had the Dead Raven, a 13.5% American Barleywine aged in Featherbone Rye barrels. Barleywines were a very popular choice for this festival.

Greenbush celebrates their win for best beer aged in a Journeyman barrel. photo credit: Journeyman Distillery

But not all the beers were barrel aged. Three Floyds brought Zombie Dust and Wigsplitter, their coffee stout. But the non-barrel beers that stood out most to Walter and I were the Nickel and the Dime from 18th Street. Nickel is a double dry-hopped NE DIPA with Nelson Sauvin hops, while the Dime is double dry hopped DIPA with Citra and Galaxy. The Nickel was especially good, very smooth and even though Walter isn’t a fan of NE IPAs, this one was a top performer for her on this day.

Burn ‘Em’s barrel aged beer was brewed with the same ingredients as Journeyman’s Bilberry Black Hearts Gin and then aged in whiskey barrels that previously held that gin. This gave a very smooth and sweet/warm beer. The final Indiana barrel beers included the St. Mungo, a scotch ale aged in Journeyman scotch barrels from Crown Brewing, the GirthQuake barleywine in Last Feather Rye barrels from Evil Czech, and 666 Sympathy for the Devil from Sun King, which doesn’t even come out to the public for another couple of days.

We got to drink some beer from breweries new to us as well. Benton Harbor is apparently rife with good breweries; we drank a great BBA stout called Full Thrust from The Livery, while North Pier from the same town brought Drake’s Drum, an English barleywine aged four months in Last Feather and Silver Cross barrels and then blended. Silver Harbor, Tibbs, Watermark and Pigeon Hill all had great beers that we drank for the first time, but the judges deemed Greenbush’s Rodeo de Cabra as the winner for the day – an imperial cream stout with blueberries, vanilla, and maple syrup. It was a great beer, but Walter preferred the BBA Plead the Fifth from Dark Horse (15.2%, but tastes like 7%). All in all, an outstanding group of beers – the best collection we’ve had since the Denver Rare Beer Tasting.

The breweries involved all spoke of Journeyman in reverent tones, and they said to a person that they will be looking for more Journeyman barrels to work with. Bill has developed relationships with many breweries, so when barrels become available they are taken quickly, but an increase in production will make more barrels available soon. Let the lines for barrels begin. This is even more of an issue when it comes to special barrels, like the whiskey barrels that have been then used to age their bilberry black hearts gin. Those are highly coveted, with gin barrels in general being the most sought after.

What does this mean for you and I? Certainly it means that the second annual Journeyman & Friends Festival will be even greater and more varied than this first year event. Walter told me to keep the calendar open.

 

Walter’s Words of Wisdom – Food vendors are always best placed at one end of a festival or the other, not amongst the brewery booths.

 
 

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