Innovative beers usually start small — early in the morning in the back of the brewhouse or late at night in the depths of a buzzed brewer's brain. Sometimes bad ideas work out beautifully. Sometimes great ideas don't come together at all. In a few cases, innovation inspires another brewer, who inspires a third. When that happens, the momentum can build until you have a full-fledged trend on your hands.
Cerebral Brewing owner and head brewer Sean Buchan has been at the forefront of a lot of craft-beer trends since the brewery opened in 2015. He was making hazy IPAs before most people in Colorado had heard of them. He also does rich pastry stouts and complex mixed-culture saisons and sours. But Buchan wanted to try his hand at brewing lagers,too, something that can be difficult to do well.
"Initially, I didn't because Bierstadt Lagerhaus is in the same town," he says about the RiNo brewery that has gained wide acclaim for its traditional lagers. "We wouldn't be able to do it better than them, so why try?"
But then Buchan got a chance to try a couple of lagers at other breweries out of state that had been aged in large wooden barrels called foeders. "I really enjoyed them," he says. "They had a roundness in their flavor and a fullness to them. So we decided to do our own spin on lagers. We're not really traditional at anything."
A couple of months ago, Cerebral bought a thirty-barrel foeder and then decided to brew what Buchan calls a "stripped-down" version of a Vienna lager that he aged for six weeks in the foeder. The result is Character Reference, which Cerebral will release in cans and on tap today at noon.
Rather than adding a wood flavor to the beer, however, the barrel aging rounds out all the sharp edges on the beer, giving it an unexpected, silky-smooth mouthfeel and flavors reminiscent of a baguette or pound cake. "I feel like [barrel aging] also adds a perceived dryness, which I enjoy," Buchan says.
Only a handful of breweries around the country are lagering beer in this way, including Tired Hands, Threes, Almanac, Burial and Holy Mountain. No one that Buchan knows of is doing it in Denver.
But that could change. After all, most recent beer trends, from New England-style IPAs to fruited sours, and from brut IPAs to, well, glitter beers, started small and built a following. "One brewer does something, and another discovers how cool it is," Buchan says. "And then they want to try it, too."
Up next: Buchan is brewing a Baltic porter in the foeder and plans to follow up with an international pilsner.