The next step in the evolution of the American beer palate is anyone’s best guess. But Innis & Gunn Founder and Master Brewer Dougal Sharp has a hunch.
“I think American craft beer is going to move beyond just hoppy beers,” he said at Monday’s Innis & Gunn Beer Lunch, held at St. Andrews Scottish Restaurant and Bar in Manhattan.
I agreed with Sharp. While hops have defined the ongoing craft-beer boom in America — and will foreseeably remain the dominant flavor — our desire for variety has also spurred the widespread production of alternative styles.
Including barrel-aging. Unlike spirits that age in oak for years or decades, beer acquires flavor from barrels within a matter of weeks, if not days. Sharp is well versed in this technique. Innis & Gunn — the Scottish beer brand founded in 2003 — only produces oak-aged beers.
First up for us to sample was the Toasted Oak IPA. It was a component in an Old Fashioned that also featured Highland Park’s 12 Year Old Scotch whisky. Sweet, woody notes from the IPA paired well with the sweet, grassiness of the scotch in this delightfully springy cocktail.
The American drinker might have been left wondering to the absence of greater hoppiness. But sharp bitterness in beer is largely a U.S. innovation and preference. Most countries prefer their brews smoother. “You can have any flavor you want in a beer, but it has to have balance,” Sharp said.
For appetizers, we chose between Scottish smoked salmon or the homemade haggis. Sharp urged that we not fear haggis, a savory pudding with sheep’s minced-up heart, liver and lungs. Most guests obliged, myself included. What we received was a hearty, meaty pudding sandwiched between mashed potatoes and squash — a rib-sticking good dish.
The meaty haggis went well with our second beer, the Rare Oak Pale Ale. Brewed with Scottish Oak, elderflower and sweet gale, the smooth, herby beer had a refreshing, earthy taste. To optimize aromatics, Sharp recommended a heavy pour for a tall, foamy, fragrant head. He then led us in smelling the beer from the top of the glass, an inch or so into the glass, and, finally, in the back of our throats, breathing in through our nose after swallowing.
I chose the fish and chips for lunch, which came out with the Limited Edition Highland Ale. This beer is matured in Innis and Gunn’s Oakerator — a tank that percolates beer through oak chips — over chips infused with Highland Park’s 18 Year Old Scotch whisky. (The Oakerator became necessary after the recent spike in popularity of aged whiskeys led to a shortage of oak barrels.)
The Highland Ale tasted oaky, malty and herby, with notes of raisin, toffee and Scotch. It paired naturally with Highland Park’s Dark Origins, a Scotch whisky which was brought out with sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
Dark Origins is a potent spirit, dark and rich, finished with twice as many first-fill sherry casks than the typical Highland Park expression. It’s peaty, smoky and spicy, tasting of chocolate, apple and honey. It packs a punch, both in terms of flavor and ABV. Sipping and savoring are advised.
While the Innis & Gunn Beer Lunch was light on hoppiness, that in no way meant it lacked for memorable, appealing flavors. Although American beer is defined by hops, the American beer palate is defined by our thirst for variety. “We’re banking on barrel-aging catching on more in the U.S.,” Sharp said.