Russ Heissner doesn’t want to brew the same beer twice.
It’s not that he’s incapable. As Harpoon Brewery’s first brewer 30 years ago, Heissner slung consistent batches of Harpoon Ale and IPA. But he’s approaching his current gig as founder of Weymouth’s Barrel House Z completely differently.
“No flagships,” Heissner says of his business model, and he’s serious. “Collaborative. Small batches. We haven’t made the same batch twice in a row yet.”
A key variable in Heissner’s plan is barrel aging. He plans to fill 6,000 square feet of warehouse space with hundreds of used bourbon, rum, wine, and tequila barrels. Seasonally themed beers will go into the barrels and emerge transformed, some kissed by the oak for a few weeks, others soaking up their wooden environment for six months or more. He’s so committed to the barrel concept that he’s designed the bathrooms at the Weymouth brewery to look like the inside of one.
Barrel House Z’s first beer offers clues as to what customers can expect from a brewery without flagships. Sunny & 79°, a collaboration with Harpoon’s Doug MacNair, is what Heissner calls a “ginned pilsner”, made in the Bavarian style with juniper berry and citrus peel added. That base beer spends a month in tequila barrels. Another version aged in rum barrels will follow in late August.
The tequila-aged version of Sunny & 79° pours a faded straw color from the tap into a glass.
Three hop varieties — Nugget, Pacifica, and Mandarina — lend clean grapefruit and pine notes to a nose made novel by spicy juniper. The first sip is biscuity but airy, with the unmistakable tang of tequila. At 7 percent alcohol by volume and hiding it well, it’s unlike any beer you’ve ever had.
“It’s a real refreshing beer,” says Heissner. “It’s sort of proof to myself that we actually can do a barrel-aged beer that’s not so heavy that you need to drink it on a dark winter night.”
Each base beer Barrel House Z makes will turn into several barrel-aged variations, available in flights in a soon-to-be-opened tap room (they’re shooting for early September). In the fall, Heissner will make a red rye ale, then a sherried version of a “big, brown sugar ale.” A porter or stout, brewed collaboratively and aged in all its iterations, will follow.
“We just wanna make something unique all the time that’s available three to four months out of the year and move on,” he says. “My entire background and training was all about making the same beer all the time. From a brewer point of view it’s a little bit liberating.”Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.