I’m not a historian, so when I hear the phrase “pre-prohibition,” I conjure up a barrage of images that include Sherlock Holmes, the women’s suffrage movement, and for some reason, Yosemite Sam from Looney Tunes. And then my brain shuts down because the phrase “pre-prohibition” or “prohibition-era” or anything “prohibition” adjacent has become a marketing buzz phrase in the beverage industry that seems to have lost all meaning in the year 2018.
And yet, when I got word that High West was dipping a toe in the beer business with a barrel-aged lager “inspired by beer that was served at pre-prohibition saloons,” I was intrigued. Not because of the pre-prohibition jargon, but because it’s High West. And if you’ve ever had any bourbon or rye or Bourye from High West, your ears will automatically perk up when you hear or read the name. It’s a Pavlovian response. It can’t be helped.
So yeah, High West is making a beer called Western Standard. More specifically, the founder of High West and the VP of brewing at Ballast Point are making a beer called Western Standard that they’re billing as a “sessionable, barrel-aged lager.” The lager was brewed, then aged in cellars, then blended with other beer aged in High West bourbon barrels.
If all of that doesn’t get your Spidey senses tingling, then you’re dead inside. I’m sorry for your loss.
For the rest of you, I have good news: Western Standard is truly different, and it’s truly great.
The beer pours a pretty dark copper with tons of tiny bubbles and smells…like a lager. Like, the same adjunct lager your granddad gave you a sip of when you were a kid. Like, nothing special, honestly. But take a sip and all of the specials come rushing at you. The head is creamy as hell and the barrel is straight up in your face like a Tiger Mom at a gymnastics meet. You get big, heavy notes of vanilla and lots of toasted marshmallow. And those sweet notes linger, man, I mean they stick around like Wooderson in Dazed and Confused.
That’s not to say this is a sweet beer—it’s not. It’s truly crisp and really light and even though there are waves of vanilla and marshmallow, I’d still give this beer the “easy drinking” label. But therein lies the beauty of Western Standard. It’s light and easy to drink but also way more complex than any other light and easy to drink lager on the market that I’ve had. And I’ve had barrel aged lagers before; for the most part, I wasn’t impressed. They’ve typically been more acidic, delivering more wood tannins than whiskey notes, but Western Standard is all bourbon sweetness, no oak acidity. It works on a number of different levels. It’s a beer you can sip and savor, picking apart like the true beer geek that you are, or it’s a beer that you could order at the end of the day and crush because you’re tired of your job and just need something to take the edge off.
My suggestion is to pound the first one, then order another to sip and savor. Rinse and repeat.
I even dig the bottle and branding, which all scream “old school” without going over the top. It’s reminiscent of Coors Banquet Beer or some of the great cheap regional lagers that are now owned by big corporations.
Western Standard is available on draft now in a couple of cities (Phoenix and Minneapolis) and will hit a slightly larger distribution in bottles in the middle of September (Salt Lake and Park City). If you live in those cities, or plane on visiting one of them this fall, consider yourself one of the lucky few. Bring me a six pack back.
Brewery: Constellation Brands (they own High West and Ballast Point)
Style: Barrel-aged lager
Availability: Draft, six pack bottles, see above.