As snow blankets much of the United States, ‘tis the season for a strong drink by the fire. American beer drinkers turn to big barleywines and barrel-aged stouts in the winter months, but what about something even stronger?
Well, with centuries of brewing tradition under their belts, it’s no surprise that Germans decided to turn their beers into something as strong as vodka. Bierschnaps, as liquor made from distilled beer is called, hails from Bavaria. Traditionally, brewers take leftover beer and distill it to create a strong spirit that carries over the flavor from the beer; the concoction is often sipped side by side with the beer from whence it came.
Now, in the spirit of collaboration of the craft-beer industry, American distillers are starting to team up with breweries to create their own version of this German spirit.
With cocktails on the rise in the mid 90s, Dave Classick Sr. decided to move on from his 20-year career in computer engineering and open Essential Spirits Alambic Distilleries in the heart of Silicon Valley. Classick knew the grain bills of spirits was similar to beer, so he thought he’d save on grain storage by partnering with a local microbrewery and distilling some of their beer. He pitched the idea to the local brewmaster, who happened to be from Bavaria. The brewmaster shared his love and knowledge of traditional bierschnaps from his homeland, but due to high costs, Classick ultimately decided he’d need to use beer he brewed from scratch.
To create ”the original American bierschnaps” in 1996, Classick decided on a simple California pale ale recipe with Cascade hops for aroma. He distills the beer with the leaves to give it additional aromatics. Akin to an un-aged single malt with a hint of hops, Essential Spirits’ process begins with its own California pale ale.
The ale is then hand distilled in small batches in a European still. The result is a smooth, clear spirit. Northwestern Hops and American Malt linger in the finish of this delightfully dry, aromatic spirit.
Classick says that in the colder winter months he enjoys his bierschnaps alongside a hot cup of Earl Grey tea with cream and sugar. The aromatics of the tea coupled with the fruity esters from the hops, and the cozy warming effect from the bierschnaps makes this concoction this perfect winter sipper.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast back in 2009, hobbyist distiller Adam Quirk tasted Classick’s biershcnaps for the first time. “The raw, bright flavors and aromatics of Classick’s made a huge impression on me. It was delicious,” recalls Quirk.
It took until 2014 for Quirk to open Cardinal Spirits with business partner Jeff Wuslich in Bloomington, Indiana. “I knew I wanted to do a bierschnaps and after I got to know the folks at Upland Brewing Company and their beer, we came up with a unique collaboration – Black Bear Bierschnaps made from their Russian Imperial Stout, Teddy Bear Kisses.”
Totally different from Classick’s clear, pale ale distillation, Black Bear is, well, black, and is layered with flavor thanks to its malty grain bill and cacao nibs.
“I’m very outnumbered at our distillery, being one of the few that doesn’t enjoy aged spirits,” Quirk says. “I’ve tried some beer-based whiskeys, but I like to taste the raw ingredients and the distillation more than the wood…I keep my bierschnaps in the freezer and treat it as an after dinner sipper.”