Reasons to explore flavor

Aaron Stueck keeps innovation alive at BJ's

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Aaron Stueck of BJ's
Michael J. Casey

Medal-wise, Aaron Stueck is having a phenomenal year.

“Because the pale bock that came out of this rye whisky barrel won a gold at the North American Beer Awards,” Stueck says, patting the face of an American oak barrel from Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons. “And then the honey whisky,” he continues, pointing to the next barrel, “Swedish Farmhouse Ale won gold at GABF.”

Business-wise, Stueck is a busy bee. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse‘s director of research and development spent 2020 working his tail off—the pandemic shifted everything in the business, and Stueck shifted along with it. Then, in March of 2021, BJ’s launched Brewhouse Beer Club, a monthly membership with access to exclusive beers. Currently, Beer Club is only available in California—Stueck says it’s coming to Colorado in 2023—but that’s not an issue for Boulder drinkers since Stueck is the one writing the recipes and pouring them under BJ’s specialty tap list: Aaron’s R&D.

There you’ll find the gold medal-winning Rye Whisky Barrel-Aged Pale Bock (a lively and refreshing strong lager with loads of toasted marshmallow, vanilla, marzipan, and barrel tannins), the soon to be released 24 Carrot Ale (with fresh ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, lactose sugar, and 24 carrots in a second-use rye whisky barrel—it’s liquid carrot cake), a kettle sour brewed with barley and wheat and aged in French oak (it looks, sniffs, and drinks like Chardonnay, but with a third of the alcohol), and the Stueck staple: Got Beer.

Got Beer—short for gotlandsdricka—is a Viking-era Swedish farmhouse ale brewed with honey, juniper, and smoked malt. In 2012, Stueck won his first professional medal, a gold, for Got Beer in the Indigenous Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival. Two years later, Stueck’s Got Beer won bronze in the Indigenous Beer category at the World Beer Cup, with gold also going to Stueck for Wild and Crazy Rye, a Finnish farmhouse ale similar to gotlandsdricka. That sent Stueck down a Scandinavian farmhouse ale rabbit hole for the next few years until the brass at BJ’s made him come up for air. “You can’t just put juniper in everything,” Stueck recounts with a grin.

The break was refreshing, but Boulder BJ drinkers wanted their Got Beer. So Stueck acquiesced, brewed a batch on his three-barrel system with half going to the tap and the other half going into Spirit Hound’s honey whiskey barrel. And then…

“It’s kind of a funny story,” Stueck starts, “because my air conditioner unit went out this summer, and it was like 91, 95 degrees in here. For about a month and a half.”

Replacement parts were stuck somewhere in a shipping container, and the air conditioner could not be fixed in time to keep the beers from souring. So, out they came.

“Normally, I would let the barrels sit for a little bit longer,” he says. “But I gotta take ’em out. And it was the perfect time.”

Stueck uses a variety of American, French, Hungarian oak barrels—each contributes slightly different flavors—as do the various Spirit Hound liquors saturating the wood. And the Spirit Hound connection isn’t arbitrary: Stueck lives in Lyons and is friendly with the Spirit Hound team, particularly head distiller Craig Engelhorn. Engelhorn used to be Oskar Blues’ brewer in the ’90s; back when a not-insignificant portion of the population feared Y2K was going to knock out everyone’s electronics. Engelhorn brewed a beer to commemorate the impending event: Lights Out Cherry Stout, a big, dark beer loaded with roasted malts and sour pie cherries. And soon, Stueck will pay homage to Engelhorn with a spin on Lights Out Cherry Stout when he releases Dr. Engelhorn’s Nocturnal Serum later this year.

“I don’t really want to call it a porter or a stout; it really doesn’t fit those categories,” Stueck says. “You get a little bit of smoke, a little bit of roast, a lot of barrel, a little bit of whisky, some cherry.”

It’s phenomenal. Fittingly, Stueck is giving the brew a unique bottling, with charred parchment paper for the label.

And lest you think Stueck has nothing but barrels on the brain, his R&D lineup shows how varied his experiments are. Currently in the tanks: An ESB brewed with English malts, hops, and a specialty yeast that gives the beer a profile reminiscent of Fuller’s: Earthy and floral with plenty of malt and a touch of fruitiness. If you’ve ever spent time drinking in a pub across the pond, this will trigger some sense memories. And for the calorie-conscious, Stueck has a low-cal IPA brewed with rice, malt, oats, and Zuper Zaazer hops. It’s low in alcohol, low in residual sugar, strong with lemony hop aromas, and refreshingly dry.

“I’m trying to produce a low-calorie light beer that’s flavorful and people actually want to drink,” Stueck says. “We already have our Lightswitch Lager, but I don’t want to just say: ‘Okay, we have that. There’s no reason to explore.’ There are reasons to explore flavor.”