A Barrel Aged Release Party, Seen From Behind the Bar

Rodney Knox, March 09, 2015

When I saw that one my local brewers, Imperial Oak Brewing in Willow Springs near Chicago, was having a bourbon barrel-aged stout release party, I decided to see what the brewery was experiencing during that sort of day. As you walk through the aisles of your local beer store, or order a beer at your local watering hole, you might sometimes forget about all of the legwork that goes into making these beers. But -- especially when it comes to your favorite barrel aged beers -- the process that produces the outcome can be fascinating. 

Imperial Oak is a small brewer (7 bbl) that is focused on big beers – imperials, doubles, and the like -- in the Chicago suburbs that opened in the spring of 2014. Their newest beer release “Barrel Aged I Must Break You” is a 10% Alcohol By Volume Kovel Whiskey Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. This stout spent eight months in Kovel 4 Grain Whiskey Barrels before being bottled and released to the general public.  

There is no distribution for this beer. Unless you are at the brewery on this chilly, late winter Saturday you won’t be drinking this RIS. If you want this beer, you better have been standing out in the line of other craft been fanatics, or have very nice friends who are willing to trade one their (one or two) beer(s) for a selection of other local bottles. 

There are many ways that a brewery can release a bottle of this type – through distribution, on tap, released over multiple days, or on a one day event, like this release. Brett Semenske, one of the three owners, explained why they prefer this way, as they were setting up the boxes of bombers. “We would rather have 10-12 good Saturdayss, spread over a whole year, than one ridiculous day.”  

This is a small, let me emphasis that again SMALL, brewery -- their stash of local spirit barrels (rum/bourbon/gin) is in an area no bigger than a small bathroom. It ended up being the only way in which they can do this type of release. They don’t have the necessary licensing to distribute, so you won’t see them on your local shelves anytime soon, and they wouldn’t want to have one big day – like what happens with Bourbon County Stout by Goose Island, known for their huge Black Friday release parties. Grant Hamilton, one of the other owners summed it up perfectly, “This is not BCS, we are fifty steps away from being Goose Island and we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”  

The tone was set early on in the day. I arrived two hours prior to the release with coffee in hand, but within a few minutes I was getting a quick tour, talking to anyone who had a free ear for a second, and listening as everyone discussed, openly, about how the day was going to go.  

This wasn’t a matriculate, OCD planned type of release… this was fiv, six, heck, 10 people working as one cohesive group, in a free-flowing environment. If something went awry as I was talking to Brett, Grant, or Chris DiBraccio, the other owner, another person associated with the brewery would lend an ear, a beer, or sometimes both. The rush, and the anticipation, ripened with a fresh hops and malty bread smell, but there were no nerves.  It was business as any normal Saturday, except there were 50+ patrons waiting in sub 20 degree weather with a five degree wind chill.

I stepped away from the warm, bustling brewery for just moment to see what those waiting outside were wondering; however, I  knew it already, I had been in the that very similar situation many times – BCS, KBS, Dark Lord, etc.  The first person in line is the key to the whole line, and this time it was Steve.  If you had been waiting in line for Barrel Aged Bermuda Triangle, a Belgian Tripel aged in Bourbon Barrels, you would met Steve.  “I was the first one in line for the last beer, I was going to be the first one for this one, and I will be again for the next one.” Why? Why would he do it time after time? The answer is simple. “They keep putting out good beer.”

“We aren’t looking at trends and think we need to make that style – we make BA beers because we enjoy drinking them, all of us,” Grant spoke as he was racing down the bar for the last bottle of I Must Break You. The motto for the day, for the bar, and for the brewery is short and was uttered by almost everyone who works there – they worry about the beer they make, the tap room, and their customers. Their beer isn’t about styles, trends, or the next thing; their beer is about making their customers, and themselves, happy.

Customers are going to freak out about one-off releases, barrel aged beers, and similar styles, and they should actually – the amount of time and effort that goes into each one of these beers is special, but from the brewers' eye, it’s just another Saturday.

As I was packing up, I asked Grant and Brett the same question, was the day a success?  Neither hesitated at the question and both answer identically, “the bar was packed four deep and people seemed to love the beer.”  Sometimes, you don’t need more than the obvious answer to a simple question.

Rodney and Adam write about beer,  take pictures of beer, & enjoy beer for any social media outlet available to them at: