Malt Monday: A Good Habit.

22 March 2010
By Richard Pliny

Ithaca Brewing Company’s Old Habbit

Style: Oak Aged Rye Ale
Color: Deep Ruby
ABV: 9.0%
Price Point: $12 for 750 ml bottle
Technical Notes:
From the Ithaca Beer Company Website:  “A Robust American Ale brewed with four different Rye Malts, fresh Centennial and Crystal Hops and our proprietary Ale Yeast. It is partly fermented in Tennesee Rye Whiskey Barrels, then carefully blended. Enjoy the gorgeous ruby color, strong aromas of vanilla and black cherry, earthy flavors of nuts and oak and the warm spicy finish.”

Hedonic Notes:

The beer pours a deep opaque ruby, that is only perceived when held to the light.  Clearly this is a very malty beer.  A thick stable foam forms quickly with a slight tan tinge.

A deep sweet malty aroma is obvious, with an oaky follow-through.  Slight notes of whiskey dance in the aroma and are followed by subdued spicy and very faint vanilla notes.  No hop bitterness in the aroma, as may be expected with the use of centennial hops.

Clear oaky flavors present initially, with a few whiskey notes providing reinforcement.  Oaky tannin notes impart a slight astringency that is perceived as a faint bitter dryness.  The beer is very malty and sweet with a caramel flavor being obvious in the start, with a slight cinnamon and nutmeg flavor following.  Rye flavors mix in with the barley malt, imparting a rather specific sweetness that is reminiscent of apples.  Bitterness is not obvious, but is rather earthy, with the hops (crystal in particular) contributing spice flavors more than bitterness.  Vanilla and spice mingle with malty caramel flavors in the finish with a very slight tannin sensation.

This beer is a bit highly carbonated (as demonstrated by the head that forms), but does not feel overly bubbly.  A slight viscous feeling is noticed, no doubt due to the rye malt.  The beer is more mothcoating than one might expect and the sensation lingers pleasantly.  The lingering mouthfeel seems to due in part to an appropriate level of tannins from the oak aging.

Blending has no doubt benefited this beer, as the oak and malt flavors are very well balanced.  The beer is very complex, yet balanced enough to be very palatable.  Other beers that are in similar categories are often overwhelmingly oaky or have overpowering rye derived red fruit flavors.  Blending, however, permits the brewer to make a diverse batch and create a palatable average, which seems to be the case.  Like most of the Excelsior! beers tasted, this one is impeccably balanced and allows one to perceive and appreciate each of the distinct flavors in its own right.

Rating: 4 Corks!4 Corks!4 Corks!4 Corks! 4/5 Corks. This beer is delightful example of a very well balanced rye ale.


Wood has been used in beer production since the early days of fermentation.  Since barrels were the only feasible containers for the early history of brewing, they served as fermentation and serving vessels.  Before stainless conical fermentors, barrels or open stone vessels served as fermentation, storage and serving containers.

Beyond being convenient, wood proves a unique set of flavors to beer, in very much the same way as wine.  Wood leaches tannins into the fermenting fluid.  In wine, aging is a necessary step to polymerize tannins and soften their impact in the beverage.  Most beer styles, however, consider tannins a flaw.


Structure of Flavone (courtsey of wikipedia)

Tannins impart a bitter or astringent mouthfeel to drinks.  They come from a number of plant sources, but are present in high concentrations in wood bark.  In grapes, tannins are present in the skins, seeds and stems, though addition of purified tannins and aging in barrels are often more substantial sources.  Beer gets its tannins from grain husks and small amounts in hops.

In lagers, precipitation of tannins contributes to chill haze.  This is avoided by carefully managing mash schedules.  Over-steeping grains or steeping at too high a temperature can increase tannin concentration in the wort.  A long protein rest can increase protein content and contribute to chill haze as well.  High alpha acid hops tend to also contribute greater levels of polyphenols that contribute to haze.

Fining techniques may also be used to remediate tannin enhanced chill haze.  Addition of negatively charged substances to the fermenting fluid encourages proteins to agglomerate.  Common choices for this are plastic beads made of PVP, egg whites and Irish moss, a seaweed extract.  These tend to encourage proteins to crash out of solution while providing no detectable contribution to the flavor.

Lambic Barrels thanks to sunbeer

Beer aging in barrels thanks to sunbeer on Flickr

Ales, however, are less affected by tannin content because the characteristically stronger flavors tend to mask the subtle tannin contributions.  In some styles (lambics and big beers notably), the tannins are considered to play a role very much akin to that in wine.  Ithaca’s Old Habit falls in to the latter category.  Here, the tannins provide a soft lingering sensation in the mouthfeel.

Aging beer in oak also permits the absorption of other compounds.  Used barrels contribute subtle hints of the prior contents.  Whiskey and sherry barrels are two common choices in beer production, contributing a smoky and sweet flavor respectively.  Though not common, new oak may also be used to age beer, contributing higher tannins and an “oaky” flavor.

Further Reading:

Fix, George.  Principles of Brewing Science.  Brewers Publications: Boulder, CO.  1999.

Mosedale, J.R. “Effects of oak wood on the maturation of alcoholic beverages with particular reference to whiskey.Forestry 68(3): 203-230. 1995.

Sparrow, Jeff. WildBrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast. Brewer’s Publications: Boulder, CO. 2005.

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