Whatever your passion, whatever the thing that makes the world shine that little bit brighter, makes your heart beat that little bit faster, a glimpse behind the velvet curtain of how that magic is made is an immeasurable treat. Whether you’re my dad touring the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground or my nephew hanging out with the drivers backstage at the Formula One, getting a sneaky peek behind the scenes is what it’s all about. For a dedicated Texan beer lover, getting a glimpse of the inner machinations of our oldest craft brewery—a two-time Great American Beer Festival Brewery of the Year-winning behemoth whose barrel-aged program is the stuff of round-the-block queues—is that trip through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.
Saint Arnold Brewing Company is Texas’ oldest continuously running craft brewery and an institution beer lovers across the state are proud of. Its commitment to quality across the vast sweep of styles it produces means that whatever your jam, you can find a Saint Arnold to meet your needs, be it a crisp refreshing H-Town Pils, a piney-hopped-crushable Elissa IPA or a deep smooth ‘n’ boozy Tarnation Strong Ale. However, what gets the Lone Star State’s serious beer nerds hot and bothered is Saint Arnold’s second-to-none barrel aging program, which, since the brewery’s relocation in 2018, now has its very own building, complete with brewhouse, cellar and tasting room. Aficionados wait eagerly for the annual releases of their much-lauded Commitment, French Press and Pumpkinator series—all of which have limited barrel-aged versions, as well as their outstanding Bishop’s Barrel series of inventive, one-of-a-kind barrel-aged brews.
The Fifth Ingredient
“With Bishop’s Barrel beer we can experiment in ways can’t do in the main brew house,” says barrel cellar manager Colin Klingeman. “I consider wood to be the fifth ingredient in beer—it allows a possibility for flavors not possible in standard beer.”
The exploration of the flavor possibilities of wood is something Saint Arnold’s team takes very seriously indeed. Their barrel cellar can accommodate up to 450 barrels at full capacity, with endless possibilities for experimentation. Many barrels are used multiple times, and all styles of liquor and wine barrel are included in the mix. “It takes some patience to not drink a beer for four years but it pays off,” says Klingeman. “The longer stays in barrels, the more flavors intensify and become more complex—we want to make something truly interesting and different.”
Opening the cellar to the public is an annual event, now in its fifth year, with 300 much-sought-after tickets released and timed tours of the cellar room, along with tastings of a carefully selected range of greatest hits and limited releases. The space itself is reminiscent of a German beer hall, all wood paneling with long shared tables and a bar at either end, and the German-American hybrid snacks of giant pretzels and corndogs did little to disabuse the theme. Our tasting cards offered samples of 13 barrel-aged beers running the gamut of classic Saint Arnold styles, plus a takeaway bottle of their Funky Berry Christmas Old Ale aged in Chardonnay barrels with raspberries, cranberries, cherries and Brett, which remains unopened at time of writing but watch this space, ’cause it sounds immense.
The Best of the Barrels
Of the fabulous array of brews on the night, top picks included the clever, sophisticated Lawnmower Kolsch aged in Madeira barrels. The light, refreshing Kolsch acts as a sponge for the rich, sweet Madeira-soaked oak, leaving a beer chock-full of boozy Mediterranean fortified wine but still light and quaffable—a joyful win. The Christmas Ale aged in Chardonnay barrels with cranberries and Brett was also a winner, festive without being corny or overwhelming with elegant funk and a moreish tang. The smoked cherrywood French Press was another highlight—the combination of intense deep coffee and subtle warm notes from the wood made for a winning combination. The wild Saison was a zippy, zesty funk-fest and both the bourbon French Press and Commitment were indulgent, potent delights.
The Brewery’s Beating Heart
As if all this excitement wasn’t enough, we were taken for our tour of the barrel room itself, the beating, potent heart of the operation, where Klingeman and marketing officer Nathan Vowell talked us through a preview tasting of two blindingly delicious new releases made specially for Saint Arnold’s forthcoming 30th anniversary—a Tokaji-aged and a tawny port aged Grand Cru, both aged in a mighty blend of Blanton’s, E.H. Taylor, Jr., Eagle Rare, Stagg Jr, Buffalo Trace, 1792, Willett Rye, 9 Year George Dickel, Stranahan’s, W.L. Weller, Elijah Craig, and Old Fitzgerald for one-and-a-half to four years before resting in their final vessels since last August. At their anniversary party in June, these, along with a Madeira-aged version, will be blended into the final anniversary beer, with the three component beers available to taste so drinkers can build a perception of how the final beer was formed, and the difference and complexity of each individually. How damn cool is that?!
The beers themselves were unsurprisingly superb. The Tokaji has a huge nose—rich, oaky and boozy with signature Tokaji sweet, sticky white-wine-like notes and a full, smooth mouthfeel with a residual tart grape lingering flavor, while the tawny had a hefty depth and lower-octave sweetness and warmth while holding its own in aroma and body. Both were tapped directly from the barrel—a rare treat, giving the beers a freshness and immediacy that you just don’t get out of a bottle.
Two-Time Brewery of the Year
As well as exploring the inner workings of a beery state treasure and sampling some truly exceptional brews, the evening was an exemplary showcase of what can be achieved with barrel aging, and the skills and experience that have led Saint Arnold to the huge accolade of Brewery of the Year at two Great American Beer Festivals, most recently in 2023.
“A Barrel Aged Evening is a perfect example of what I believe we do best at Saint Arnold,” says chief marketing officer Lennie Ambrose. “Yes, we absolutely strive for excellence with our everyday and year-round releases like Art Car IPA and Grand Prize but also have an incredible team with years of knowledge on how to craft perfect barrel aged and specialty beers as well. It is so cool to be able to open up the beer hall and let people taste their way around the room to find which ones really connect with them.”
Tickets courtesy of Saint Arnold, opinions and photos are the writer’s own. Learn more about the history of Saint Arnold at the Houston Chronicle’s website