Salt Lake City, Utah — The first thing you should know is “the cellar” isn’t some barrel-vaulted stone chamber tucked under a monastery. It’s a simple, climate-controlled, warehouse with an average looking loading dock, lined up between a series of identical docks, but when the overhead door is rolled up and you get your first glimpse into the dark interior, a sense of anticipation and awe starts to build. It’s probably as close to opening a Pharaoh’s tomb or uncovering a buried treasure chest as anyone will get without finding themselves in the pages of National Geographic.
The Cellar is home to Epic’s barrel-aging program and its notable Big Bad Baptist, an Imperial Stout aged in whiskey and bourbon barrels with small batch coffee and cacao nibs added. It is one of Epic’s best known beers, carrying a 100 point rating from ratebeer.com, a 96 point rating on beeradvocate.com and 95 from BTI. Ryan Buxton, the Head Cellarman at the Salt Lake City brewery, oversees the production and maturation of this beer each year for its seasonal release at the beginning of October. Below is his explanation of what makes Big Bad Baptist so special.
What I love about Big Bad Baptist is how complex the drinking experience is. There’s so much going on from aroma to aftertaste, but none of it collides or conflicts. We all put a lot of effort into harmonizing and organizing the different layers of this beer so that the experience is nuanced.
First we start with an exceptional base beer, our award-winning Imperial Stout. This beer is often overshadowed by Baptist but it really is at its heart. We use seven different malts and max out our mash tun; in fact, its pre-boil gravity is higher than many of our beers are post-boil. We call it a sacrificial yield and this is what creates the rich flavors reminiscent of bitter chocolate, coffee, dried fruit and even star anise, but of course the real magic, and what makes Baptist so special, is the barrel aging.
We use our casks three different times and each use produces different characteristics. When the Imperial Stout goes into a first-use cask, it’s around 10.5% ABV, and after cellaring it emerges at around 11.5 – 12% ABV. As you can imagine, there is a strong whiskey aroma with plenty of heat and an overall boozy character. The malt character we worked to produce in the base beer is simply overpowered by the toasted marshmallow and alcoholic quality of the whiskey. This is where the second-use casks really make the difference. The beer aged in these casks have a much rounder, dried fruit character, such as plum and fig, with that sweet, smooth, vanilla character the oak contributes. Our third-use casks become very woody, with a slight astringent dryness on the aftertaste. This is the beer people think of when they talk about being able to taste the barrel.
We thief samples from all of the 900 barrels over the course of the year and taste them through panels. Baptist takes up almost half of our total barrel program, a little over 2000 barrels total, so the tastings are pretty extensive. I think what really makes Baptist so special is that so many people at the brewery have an input. It’s also 100% barrel-aged which is becoming rare as the cost of barrels increases. Each release for the season is going to be slightly different. We don’t have a pre-set flavor profile that defines Big Bad Baptist. Instead we allow the beer to be itself. This is a challenging way to work because beer is a living, changing beverage and each one of our barrels is unique.
After selecting the blend, the last step is to add in the coffee and cacao nibs. Once again, we aren’t following a formula but approach the process through tasting. In some batches we pull back on the coffee and increase the cacao, if the beer needs some additional richness, or if the roasted character could use a bit of a boost, we might add slightly more coffee. This is the type of brewing that’s at the core of Epic. Exceptional beer needs to be cared for and truly crafted; but above all it needs to stand on its own, which is why numbered releases are so important to us. Each time we make the beer we’re creating that brand’s identity; sometimes previous releases play into that and other times we deviate. There’s no fixed point for our Elevated or Exponential series beers. We let our palates, our technique, and our imaginations guide us.
This year we are releasing Big Bad Baptist with four different coffees from four different small batch roasters; Caffe Ibis and Blue Copper out of Utah, Novo out of Denver and a special release featuring Cultivar Coffee out of Texas. Coffee is like any of our other natural ingredients. We spend a lot time developing relationships with maltsters and hop farmers and have tremendous respect for their craft and coffee isn’t any different.
We’ve featured Caffee Ibis’s coffee in Baptist since release number one. We are using their Organic Papua New Guinea beans that are heavily roasted and match the beer’s profile nicely. Blue Copper Roasters is a new partner for us this year and we are featuring their Colombia Narino Fiesta beans which have a wonderful, full, classic Colombian nose. In Denver we’ve sourced beans from Novo Coffee that they roast especially for the beer. For our fourth coffee release of the season we looked a little farther afield and partnered with a roaster out of Texas called Cultivar Coffee for a special release of Big Bag Baptist reserved just for that market.
I think it’s important to note that the effect the coffee has on the beer isn’t as pronounced as some people might think. There is already a tremendous amount of roasted barley in the beer which contributes flavors similar to coffee. Coffee makes the most impact on the aroma and, interestingly enough, accentuates the fruit flavors. Novo’s coffee actually contributes a blueberry flavor we are really excited about. Another interesting aspect of coffee in beer, of particular note for those who like to cellar beer, is that the coffee slowly moves to a more green chili pepper like flavor as the beer ages. We can control how the coffee impacts the beer much the same way a barista controls cup flavor, by altering the size of the grind and its steeping time. It’s just one more layer of control we can use when we craft a release.
Big Bad Baptist will be released on October 1st and will arrive on retail shelves throughout the month. It will be available early in Denver at The Great American Beer Festival and in the Epic Brewing Taproom. It will also be on draught in Denver the week of September 21st at Paramount Café, World of Beer – Cherry Creek, Henry’s Tavern, Chiba Hut, and Hard Rock Café. There will be a special tapping at Falling Rock on Friday the 25th at 11:30 pm. Release information on each batch can be found on Epic’s website at www.epicbrewing.com.