If you know Betteridge’s Law, you’re expecting the answer to this headline’s question to be a resounding ‘no.’ But in this case, the answer is ‘well, sort of.’ After all, the name is similar; the label is similar; the beer is barrel-aged; it’s brewed in collaboration with Goose Island … But there’s actually a more philosophical reason that this beer could be Wäls’ version of the famed BCBS.
The story of Alambique County, a collaboration beer brewed at Wäls in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, actually begins in Chicago. When Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Goose Island, acquired Wäls last year, Wäls’ brewers (and brothers) José and Tiago Felipe traveled to Goose Island to meet their Midwest counterparts. As Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s brewing innovation manager, tells it, the brewers from both hemispheres just hit it off. Goose Island was already planning to launch its IPA and Honkers Ale in Brazil, so when the Goose crew arrived in South America in July 2015, they swung by Wäls and a collaboration came to life.
“The scene down there in Brazil is very young. It would be comparable in some fashion to the U.S. maybe 20, 25 years ago where craft’s probably one percent of beer sales and the market’s dominated by light lager,” Siegel says. “But these craft breweries have popped up in response to greater interest.” Founded in 1999, Wäls has been a part of that charge.
So this past July, the American Midwest pioneer and the intrepid Brazilian brewery got to work on their collaboration. Alambique County’s base beer isn’t a stout like Bourbon County, but is instead a dark tripel. Instead of aging in bourbon barrels, it’s aged in barrels that previously held cachaça. Cachaça is basically the national liquor of Brazil; it’s similar to rum in that it’s distilled from sugarcane, and most of it is unaged. (If you’ve had a true caipirinha, the popular Brazilian cocktail mixed with cachaça, a bit of sugar and lime juice, you’ve likely tried an unaged version of the spirit.) But a small percentage is aged, and the brewers snapped up some spent barrels to age their tripel.
“We had the base recipe and the barrels, but we just needed one other element to tie it in to make it actually a Brazilian beer,” Siegel says. “So we went to the central market in Belo Horizonte, where there are tons of stands with fruits and vegetables and nuts and pretty much anything you could want just spilling over from these bins.”
After much sampling, the team from Goose Island and Wäls selected dried bananas and roasted Baru nuts, a large nut similar in size to a Brazil nut but with a peanutlike flavor. The next day, brewers added the ground nuts to the mash and the small, dried bananas to the boil. Goose Island’s team had to depart before barrel aging, leaving that to the Felipe brothers.
When Goose Island’s team finally got to try the finished beer (after it got hung up in customs for a while), they were pleased. “I think it turned out quite well, certainly the cachaça barrels add a unique character,” Siegel says. “It’s certainly very different from Bourbon County, other than the label. We weren’t trying to do a stout or anything that would be seen as too similar as BCBS.”
Alambique County was sold mostly from Wäls’ taproom, and will never be available in the U.S., but it bears a foundational similarity to BCBS: Bourbon is a uniquely American spirit; Cachaça is a uniquely Brazilian one. BCBS and its variants, despite a wider AB-assisted sales footprint, still loosely express a sense of place, especially the Properietor’s bottles sold only in Chicago. Likewise, Alambique’s ingredients are tied to its home country.
We tasted Alambique County—a special thank you to a globe-trotting friend of DRAFT—and found it spicy and complex, rich and rumlike. The nose offers up all the doughiness and rich aromas of baking rum bread: First, caramelized sugar, tons of raisin and molasses waft off the pour, then dried cherry and almond nuttiness deepen the creme brulee sweetness. The sip is all that and more, introducing ginger, molasses and cinnamon spice as well as dark dates to the mix.
It’s not similar in flavor to Bourbon County, but it’s delicious in its own right. If this is Brazil’s answer to a bourbon barrel-aged stout, the country’s craft beer scene is well on its own way.