Aging beer in wooden barrels is not a new technique in the brewing world. Once, all beer was aged or stored in wooden barrels, and that practice continued until metal containers were available. Only Belgian lambic and sour beer brewers retained the practice of aging and storing their beers in unlined oak barrels or vats, and for good reasons — they relied on the wild yeast and bacteria in the barrels to work their magic on their beer.
Now, creative American craft brewers, in their relentless search for new and exotic flavors, are using barrel-aging differently than their Belgian colleagues. Craft brewers have been experimenting for over 10 years with aging beer in barrels that were used for bourbon or wine production. Goose Island Brewery is credited with perfecting the practice with its exquisite and highly recommended Bourbon County Stout (14 percent ABV). The practice in the last few years has become widespread and has developed to the point that barrel-aging is now a full-blown trend in craft brewing. Many breweries, especially the newer ones, are offering these aged beers as special releases in order to enhance their brewing credentials.
Used barrels contain a lot of flavor to pass onto beer, much of it created by the preparation regimen for the barrels. Oak barrels used for aging bourbon are charred before use, which is responsible for much of the flavor and color associated with bourbon. The charring caramelizes sugars in the wood and creates the familiar brown color of bourbon. Oak barrels used for aging wine, meanwhile, are only lightly toasted. The heat applied during toasting or charring also enhances the chemicals that are responsible for the somewhat herbal flavor we associate with oak as well as the vanilla flavor found in bourbon and some wines.
Perhaps the most important contribution to beer of a used barrel is a result of the long aging of bourbon and wine. During aging, a quantity of the liquid is absorbed into the walls of the barrel, and this liquid and its flavors remain in the used barrel. Some of it will then be absorbed into the beer during its time in the barrel.
The challenge for breweries is finding the right balance between the beer and the flavors imparted by the barrel and the liquid that initially occupied the barrel. A robust beer is the best candidate for barrel-aging because its strength will help it maintain its identity when aged in a barrel that contains the strongly alcoholic bourbon or flavorful wine.
A good illustration of this challenge is an aged beer called Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (8.2 percent ABV) from Kentucky’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. The base beer appears to be a standard ale. The bourbon and alcohol that remained in the barrel obliterated this ale, and the result is a beverage that is more reminiscent of bourbon in flavor and aroma than beer. This is an instructive example of an unbalanced beer. I have tasted beers from other breweries that were intense and the flavor imparted by the aging process was equally intense; the results were nearly undrinkable. Correct balance is everything — sometimes too much flavor is just that: too much.
A study in good balance is Victory’s Baltic Thunder (8.5 percent ABV). This is a Baltic porter style aged in a red wine barrel. The aroma is rich red wine with hints of dark chocolate and dark fruits. The notes of red wine carry through to the taste and change the characteristics of this Baltic porter into a new beer, with oak and tannic notes accenting the beer’s chocolate and dark fruit nuances.
A rich but balanced bourbon barrel-aged beer is Thirsty Dog’s Wulver. This one is a Wee Heavy, the strongest of the traditional Scottish ales, that has been barrel-aged for a whopping 11 months. Wulver is loaded with dark fruit flavor and rich caramel malt that blend perfectly with the vanilla and caramel flavors from the bourbon-infused barrel, as well as mild toffee notes from oxidation from the extended aging and a hint of tannin and oak — a true sipping beer. Cheers!
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