Nathan Perry stood next to J. Rieger & Co.’s big still recently, watching the hydrometer bob under the flow of clear distillate and occasionally tasting and making adjustments. From the look of it, he could have been making whiskey. Except he wasn’t.
Instead, Perry was turning discarded beer from Boulevard Brewing Co. into J. Rieger’s newest spirit, the aptly named Left for Dead.
“I knew Boulevard had to dump beer, so I thought it would be really neat to be able to do something with that and make it into a good spirit,” says Perry, who worked in quality assurance at Boulevard until taking over as J. Rieger’s head distiller.
The project doesn’t vary too much from tradition. Like brewing, distillation begins with water and grain. The mixture is heated, starches convert to sugars, yeast is added, fermentation happens. The resulting liquid, called wash, is very much like a rudimentary beer, although you wouldn’t want to drink it.
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Replacing the usual wash with a finished craft beer, albeit one that in some way didn’t meet Boulevard’s strict quality control standards, offers a unique opportunity, says J. Rieger co-founder Andy Rieger.
“When you start with that as your base for distilling, that’s a very different thing from whiskey wash,” Rieger says. “You’re already starting with something that’s golden.”
J. Rieger isn’t the first to play with that idea. Brewers including Dogfish Head and Rogue also have stills and use their own craft brews as a base for some spirits, while Charbay Distillery and Winery makes whiskey from Bear Republic Brewing’s Racer 5 IPA. But the collaboration between J. Rieger and Boulevard is distinctive in that it transforms unusable beer into an intriguing spirit.
“We thought it would be an interesting experiment. We found out that it makes an excellent product,” says Jeremy Ragonese, Boulevard’s director of marketing. “We’re proud to put our name on it and be associated with it.”
Under usual circumstances, Boulevard would put the beer through its own filtration system and then pour it down the drain. Now, beer can simply be delivered to J. Rieger. The distillery’s staff empties the bottles, kegs or totes, allows the brew to go flat and then distills it. J. Rieger gets a well-crafted base for free. Boulevard is spared the hassle and expense of disposing of it.
“This is a great alternative, to give (the beer) a second life,” Ragonese says.
The beer might have been left over from a test run, or didn’t meet flavor specifications, or was stored at the wrong temperature during transit, or is close to expiring. Such faults are largely irrelevant once it goes into the still.
That said, beer is a complex liquid. There could be several types of malt and yeasts, as well as hops, which means every batch of Left for Dead tastes different. Perry says he made one with a Belgian-style beer that had “huge, big floral esters,” or aroma compounds, while stout yielded a “roasty, chewy” character. Another early run was made from Boulevard’s The Calling Imperial IPA, described as its most heavily hopped beer ever.
J. Rieger will launch the first batch (made from Unfiltered Wheat) at an after-party sponsored by Boulevard during Boulevardia…
“You can smell the hops,” Perry says. “It’s really fruity, but it’s got an almost minty, piney, herbal taste, too.”
J. Rieger will launch the first batch at an after-party sponsored by Boulevard during Boulevardia, the West Bottoms festival that will be June 17-19 this year. For details, go to boulevardia.com. Distribution will be expanded to retail stores after that. New releases will follow occasionally after that.
Each will be numbered so consumers can find out more about the beers used to make it. All will be 89 proof, a nod to 1989, the year Boulevard started. None can be called whiskey, thanks to the presence of the hops. The first is unaged, although Perry says the distillery might experiment with barrel aging in the future.
“It’s really just a fun project meant to get people excited,” Andy Rieger says.
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and spirits columnist for Chow Town. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @BlitheSpiritsKC.