OAK IS HARDLY the first word that comes to mind when describing the subtle delights of Kölsch; any association heavier than sun-kissed grain seems too stolid for the golden pride of Köln, Germany. Yet American brewers habitually eschew convention, and after a decade of experimentation at the Festival of Wood-and Barrel-Aged Beers it was only a matter of time before recipes ranged far enough afield to encompass this delicate, lager-like ale. So it is that Liquid Oak, a wild, wood-aged Kölsch blended with Muscat grapes, fits right into the festival’s 11th year lineup.
The beer is admittedly well-named, leveraging a substantial woodiness from barrel-aging to complement lighter notes of vanilla, grain, honey, and lemon. To bear up these flavors the body was left somewhat fuller than authentic Kölsch, with mixed success. Its lagering period subdued the (already gentle) hops and lactobacillus creates a nearly milk chocolate smoothness in the mouthfeel where carbonation sits a touch too low. Meanwhile, the addition of Muscat grapes contributes some sharpening acid that comes across a couple jots too strongly to be balancing. It’s a complicated interplay that sounds enthralling on paper but in the glass was regrettably less refreshing. Aged too long, perhaps? Kölsch is mild to begin with and hardly seems suitable for cellaring: Früh Kölsch even exhorts its customers to drink fresh, ‘bevor es Alt wird.’ The specific reference is to Altbier, Kölsch’s archenemy from Düsseldorf, but the virtues of its quick quaffing are universal—Liquid Oak’s various merits would have been more effective if built up from a sturdier base.
Served: On tap (Skyline Loft, FoBAB 2013, Chicago)