Enraptured in the Rye: A team effort to fill a rye whiskey barrel

What would you do if you were given a large whiskey barrel? Baltimore, Maryland homebrewer Jason Black was attending a beer release when a friend of his, Steve Marsh, came up to him. Steve is one of the owners of Checkerspot Brewing Company located in downtown Baltimore, and he had just picked up several empty 30-gallon (113-L) rye whiskey barrels from Catoctin Creek Distillery of Purcellville, Virginia. Steve had distributed most of the barrels to local breweries, but he still had one left. Knowing Jason as a resourceful and creative person, Steve decided to give the last barrel to Jason.

Jason discussed the barrel with Mike Sherman, the President of the Baltimore-based Cross Street Irregulars homebrew club. Mike suggested we pull together some homebrewers for a collaboration brew to fill the barrel. The seven brewers (Jason Black, Dave Carpenter of Mobtown Brewing Co., Julianne Haciski, Rick Noble, Brent Riha, Mike Sherman, and Greg Spacek) each made a batch of beer. The only rule: Make a brown ale with at least some rye in it. The result: 16 grains, 9 hops, and 4 different yeasts. We let the beer age for 6 weeks in the fresh rye whiskey barrel. When we tasted it, the seven recipes had become their own new, delicious beer! Next up we had to figure out the best way to drink it.

Sampling the rye goods. Clockwise from top left: Mike Sherman, Jason Black, Rick Noble, Dave Carpenter (Mobtown Brewing Co.), Steve Marsh, Rob Neff (Checkerspot Brewing Co.), Brent Riha, Julianne Haciski. Not pictured: Greg Spacek.

Steve Marsh and Jason Black would best be described as “cask people.” Steve has worked for several breweries over the years, including running the cask program at Heavy Seas Beer. Jason is the President of the Chesapeake Bay Branch of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), the only U.S.-based branch of the oldest consumer-based group focused on cask-conditioned real ale. Steve suggested we put some of the beer on cask . . . so of course we did! We filled two pins (5.4 gallons/20.4 L each) with our beer. We added whole leaf Cascade hops to one pin, and left the other without any dry hop addition. Normally, cask ale carbonates using residual yeast, but since the beer was aged, we did add a little Lallemand CBC-1 yeast to the pins to assure carbonation.

For the release party, contributing brewers Brent and Julianne opened their home to over 50 people for an official SPBW event. Steve loaned a beer engine so we could enjoy one of the pins on hand pump, while the other was gravity fed. While we were nervous about the results of blending different recipes together (especially with four different yeasts), by keeping the styles relatively similar, the end result was still great! The cask treatment was also a nice way to bring out all of the flavors of our creation.

The cask treatment was also a nice way to bring out all of the flavors of our creation.

The beer poured a nice clear brown. Rye-whiskey aroma dominated with a slight roasty smell right behind. The beer had an unsurprisingly complex malt backbone that came through on the first sip, including a noticeable rye component from both the malt and the whiskey. Hops were appropriately understated, with a noble spiciness that paired well with the spice of the rye malt. Given the 30% crystal malt component, we were concerned that the beer would have too much body, but it turned out to be quite balanced. Most people preferred the base beer slightly more than the pin with the dry hops. Everyone enjoyed both, but some people said the added hops detracted a bit from the delicate and complex flavors of an otherwise malt-forward beer.

The rye whiskey barrel up top, two pins, and 3 kegs.

If you want to make a beer similar to the concoction we made — a blend of our blend — you can find a recipe that Jason Black pulled together at

Issue: May-June 2019