A Different Take on Cherry Beer

by Jim Lundstrom

Note to Reader readers:  I carry great guilt with me for many things, not least of which is the dearth of Minnesota beers I write about. Sorry about that, but here where I live on the thumb of Wisconsin sticking into Lake Michigan, Surly and Grain Belt are about it for Minnesota beers, and I think I’ve said all I can about them. 

Should any Minnesota brewer want to call my attention to a beer, send to me at

8147 Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, Wis, 54202.

 

In the meantime, what follows is a story of a great brewer in my area. I don’t want to sound like the Door County Visitor Bureau, but you could have a very beery journey from the base of the thumb at Thumb Knuckle Brewery in Walhain, Kewaunee County, to Ahnapee in Algoma (also Kewaunee County), Starboard in Sturgeon Bay (finally, Door County – where you’ll feel everything relax), Door County/Hacienda Brewing in Baileys Harbor, and on the other side of the peninsula only 9 miles away in the tiny village of Egg Harbor (my hometown for the last six years) the rebuilt Shipwrecked Brewpub and One Barrel Brewing of Madison’s new satellite site, right next door to the new Hatch Distillery.

Look me up if you do come. I’m easy to find.
Nick Calaway has had a beer idea fermenting in his head since 2016, and last Saturday, Dec. 1, he finally unleashed it on the world at his Ahnapee Brewery in Algoma.

Thoughtful brewer that he is, Calaway had the idea of introducing a well-known local product in a unique way, hence the creation of his special winter release Cherry Wood, a 10-percent Baltic porter infused with cherry wood.

Cherries are popular in beers of all sorts – from North Coast Brewing’s Tart Cherry Berliner Weisse to New Glarus’ award-winning Belgian Red. 
Plenty of cherry beers out there, Calaway thought, but how about cherry wood beers? So he started calling area orchards and learned there is only one time of year when cherry wood can be collected, and that is when they are pruned while still dormant in late winter or very early spring.

“I contacted a bunch of orchards, and Glen (Musil) at Choice Orchards said he’d help me out,” Calaway said.

Musil said while he oftens sells cherry wood to people who want to use it for smoking while grilling or incorporating it into liquid smoke, Calaway’s request for green cherry wood to brew beer with was a first.
Calaway loaded a trailer with the cherry wood and let it sit outside for most of 2017, until snow started flying. The wood was moved inside to continue drying for the winter, and then Calaway cut the wood into small discs that he brought home to kiln at a low temperature in his oven.

The toasted cherry wood discs were then placed in nylon bags and added to fermenters holding a Baltic porter made earlier this year.
“We made several pins [a five-gallon keg] to get the toast level correct,” Calaway said. “The finished product is probably version six of toasting. It’s the toast level I enjoyed the most.”

After talking about it, a taste was in order from a freshly labeled bomber bottle.
“It’s very unique wood, cherry wood,” Calaway said as we both sniffed at the glass before tasting. “When we’re cutting and toasting the wood, this is the smell. It’s subtle when blended with the beer. It’s not oak. It’s not a wine barrel or whisky barrel, but it has some similarities. Super gentle, rich but not too sweet. You get that really nice cherry wood flavor through the nose and on.”

I note that it has a silky feel.
“We put a good amount of oats and flaked barley in it, which builds up that protein layer, nice and soft,” Calaway said.
Chocolate notes abound and on the finish is a distinct but subtle fruitiness. I keep waiting for the wood tannins so obvious in wood-aged beers, but that is absent from this easy drinking Baltic porter.

Diving in a little deeper, this is a bold beer with big luscious chocolate tones, even a hint of coconut, dark fruits stewed and a tart fruitiness (cherry) on the end. So many things going on in this beer. The choclatiness seems to linger forever, and the cheery cherry tang on the end is undeniable as the beer warms.

“It doesn’t taste like it, but it’s 10 percent,” Calaway adds.
He entered Cherry Wood in the barrel-aged category at the World Beer Championship earlier this year and earned 93 out of 100 points, worthy of a gold medal.

“This is the most we’ve ever done for a large beer,” Calaway said. “We typically bottle about 35 cases, but because of the award and how good I think it is, we ended up doing 75 cases. We did two back-to-back batches. I’m excited to see how well it goes.”
He and his crew were also able to use a new labeling line that speeded up the process. “We hand bottled and labeled 75 cases in about 55 minutes, which, for us, is an incredible feat. Typically it would be six cases in a little more than a half-hour.”
Calaway also revealed that Cherry Wood will be Ahnapee’s penultimate big bomber bottle release.

“Brut Force, the yearly release, will be the last bomber bottle. From now on our big beer releases will be in 12-ounce bottles [in four packs]. To open this,” he said, referring to the 22-ounce Cherry Wood bottle we were sharing, “you have to be sharing it with some friends, as opposed to a 12-ounce, where you get home from a hard day at work and say, I deserve one. And you have three bottles left.”