Hear the name Stiegl and you probably think of the brewery’s pilsner, or maybe its popular grapefruit radler. Barrel-aging probably doesn’t spring to mind, but that perception could change in the coming years. The venerable Austrian brewery, which dates to 1492, has invested in a new pilot batch system and has shown a heightened interest in barrel-aging that allows them to roll out smaller-batch beers more in line with American craft beer trends.
Exhibit A: Stiegl Ferdinand, the newest beer in the brewery’s Vintage series, is now available in limited quantities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Florida. The beer demonstrates both Stiegl’s legacy and its foray into new waters: Ferdinand’s base beer is an imperial alt, a traditional copper-colored German ale from Dusseldorf. But that historic style gets a twist courtesy of four months in barrels from Martinique that previously held rum and cognac. At 10%, the beer isn’t one you want to crack open yet: Right now, the flavor is predominantly honeylike sweetness with a fairly harsh, rum-laced swallow. It has the potential to mellow over time, smoothing out and quieting down into a more complex sip.
“It’s just the next step in experimentation for these guys,” says Anthony Norkus, craft and specialty import brand manager for Louis Glunz Beer, which imports Stiegl’s beers to the U.S. “They’re kind of emulating the American market. Barrel-aging is relatively new as a whole [to traditional German breweries]. They used to barrel age all of the Oktoberfest beers, but that’s just what had to do happen because the heat from the summer made brewing basically impossible. That’s been going on for hundreds of years, but this is the next step where they’re now not just using fresh oak but spirits barrels.”
And it’s not just Stiegl. Norkus also cites Austria’s Hirt brewery (maker of Hirter beers) as an old-guard German brewery that’s pushing the boundaries of its traditional lineup with some sour beers coming down the pipeline. “Part of it is keeping up with the Jones of the American market,” Norkus says. “But there’s also a transition in the family of Stiegl and Hirter of the new generation taking over. It’s a national progression for them to break away from their dads’ and grandfathers’ lagers and pilsners.”