On Sunday, the final day of New York City Beer Week, Queens’ Finback Brewery will unveil a new variant of Barrel Aged BQE in bottles. It’s the brewery’s most coveted offering and, according to Untappd, one of the highest rated beers currently being made within the five boroughs.
At its foundation, BQE is an imperial stout brewed with chocolate and coffee sourced from makers in Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Finback debuted the dark and robust liquid to favorable reviews in 2014, only for those to be eclipsed shortly after by the higher praise given to a second version—one that added complexity without sacrificing drinkability—aged in bourbon barrels. (This kind of maturation was hardly surprising; imperial stouts are the most popular style to age within oak due to its inherent high alcohol content and hefty grain bill. Also: The barrel-aging process has become one of the hottest trends in craft beer.)
Whenever any form of BQE is unleashed, which is always sporadic and in limited amounts, it’s a reason to celebrate—and to secure it to drink. We’ll have an opportunity to do both starting this Sunday at 1:00 p.m., when Finback releases one matured in apple brandy barrels in bottles. We chatted with one-half of the beer operation based in Glendale to learn more.
Edible Brooklyn: What was the impetus to make a beer like BQE?
Basil Lee: Our brewery is in Queens and we both live in Brooklyn. We wanted something that brought together where we lived and worked, and since the actual BQE runs through both boroughs, we thought a “Brooklyn Queens Espresso” stout sounded cool.
EB: When did you create the recipe?
BL: We made a similar beer as homebrewers, but it didn’t have a name then. BQE was the fifth beer we did after we launched the brewery. The first non-barreled batch came out in the winter of 2014.
EB: The beer’s name refers to the coffee and chocolate—from Queens and Brooklyn, respectively—added to it. Do you source these from the same producers for every batch, or do they change?
BL: They change. Originally we used Mast Brothers chocolate and a great coffee roaster in Queens called Native. But we’ve worked with Raaka in Red Hook and Fine & Raw in Bushwick on the chocolate side, and we used Stumptown Coffee once. We like changing it up because meeting new creative people and tasting the variety in what they do is a lot of fun.
EB: When are the chocolate and coffee added during brewing?
BL: The cacao nibs go in toward the end of the boil. We grind them into a rough powder to get better extraction. And the coffee, we cold-brew it and add the concentrate in secondary. That amount might be adjusted throughout the aging process in the barrels or at final blending as we see fit.
EB: This is the second barrel-aged variant of BQE. What made you try a different kind of spirit?
BL: It’s been increasingly tough to get all our barrels from a single source. We aged the first barrel-aged batch in Four Roses barrels. But when we doubled the batch for 2015 and then doubled that for 2016 the barrels had to be a mix of different distilleries. So much has evolved in beer, even in the two short years we’ve been open, and barrels are a big part of that. It’s been more challenging for us to source [barrels] and much more expensive.
EB: How much of Apple Brandy was made and bottled?
BL: We made one batch of BQE last year and split it into three different beers: bourbon, apple brandy and BQExC. The BQExC is a non-wood-aged version but conditioned in stainless with additional coffee. That’ll be out in bottles next. We bottled about 140 cases of the bourbon and 50 cases each of the other two.
EB: Once you add the beer to barrels, what are you monitoring over time?
BL: Two things: barrel character, or the flavors directly contributed by the barrel itself or the spirit that was previously in it; and the balance of that character that happens over time. The spirit continues to build but it also integrates better with the beer so it becomes rounder and smoother. I find that some of the booziness goes away and the spirit character starts to meld better with the beer over time.
EB: How often do you sample it to see if it’s headed in the direction you want?
BL: We try not to bother the beer too much, honestly. Bourbon was aged for about eight months and the apple brandy sat for almost a year; we probably sampled them about three times each. The batch we made this year is the third time we’ve done this, and we feel like we have a good handle on where we want it.
EB: What do you ultimately want for a final product?
BL: For me, I see a stout that has really nice barrel character—everything from oak to vanilla to the previous spirit—without being too boozy. Some people really want a big hit of bourbon, or in this case, apple brandy, but we like the coffee and cacao flavors to be more integrated with the warming spirit character. It’s full bodied, a little malty and a touch sweet, which I think makes it very pleasant.
EB: Barrel Aged BQE is your most coveted offering and it sells quickly, usually within hours any time it’s released. Do you feel any pressure to make more?
BL: I think there’s a pretty crazy fervor over barrel-aged stouts in general right now. We love that people love the beer. But I like that we only offer it at certain times. In saying that, though, we are working on another kind of BQE. So I guess that’s making more.
EB: Anything you can share?
BL: Well, we just got another 12 bourbon barrels and we’ll be brewing something new into it, in the same family as BQE but with some more spice. I don’t want to reveal too much yet but I will say that one of the big focuses this year is to grow our barrel program even more. We have over 150 barrels in house now, and we have a couple foeders coming. We’re planning on wood aging being a big part of who we are in the years to come.