Barrel Aging, and How it Can Help Your Brewery Break Flavor Boundaries
When Goose Island entered its Bourbon County Brand Stout into the Great American Beer Festival Awards in the mid-1990s, judges weren’t sure what to make of it.
The imperial stout that pushes 14 percent alcohol by volume had been aged in bourbon barrels, capturing the charred oak and smoke flavors that resulted in a beer unlike anything most had tasted. The judges allowed Goose Island to enter the beer into the strong ale category; it won gold. Eleven years later, Bourbon County Brand Stout won gold in the wood-and-barrel-aged beer category at the World Beer Cup Awards.
Today, aging robust beers like stouts and porters in bourbon barrels is nothing new; hundreds of breweries across the country offer some take on the style. But brewers are increasingly pushing the boundaries of what barrels they’re using, which darker beers they’re putting into those barrels, and what other ingredients are going in, too.
Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, has a barrel program that has evolved from a once-a-year release of several styles—including bourbon barrel–aged quadrupel ale and its whiskey-barrel imperial stout—to year-round releases in more accessible 12-ounce four packs rather than individual 750-milliliter bottles. In 2018, Boulevard projects that 3.4 percent of total sales will be barrel-aged beers.
And even though the brewery has explored aging some lighter ales in barrels, such as a tequila barrel–aged gose, many of its most popular offerings remain dark, bold beers. Its limited release Rye on Rye on Rye combines a 14.6 percent alcohol-by-volume rye ale that is aged in first-use rye whiskey barrels before being transferred to another set of first-use rye whiskey barrels to continue absorbing flavor. For the brand’s Cabernet Cask imperial stout, a stout spent almost two years in oak barrels that first aged Groth Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon before finishing in Jefferson’s Reserve bourbon barrels, resulting in a complex beer with notes of chocolate, espresso, fig, tobacco, and leather.
“I think bourbon will always be the most popular barrel because the flavors you get are big and bold, and it can stand up to big and bold beers,” says Boulevard brewmaster Steven Pauwels. “Once you go to tequila, rum, and brandy, you start to get a little bit more delicate, so your beer has to be more delicate, too. I’ve had some really beautiful beers over the years in tequila barrels, but it’s tricky. If you put an imperial stout into a tequila barrel, you might not get out what you think you’re going to get out.”
Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, puts its Marshal Zhukov’s imperial stout in a variety of barrels for various iterations of the beer, which has included sherry barrel–aged, apple brandy barrel–aged, and cognac barrel–aged versions.
Pauwels says brewers can learn a lot from winemakers, particularly when it comes to blending ales that have aged in various barrels to result in a beer that is more complex than its individual parts.
Boulevard’s Changeling, a blended dark sour ale, is a blend of beers including a Scotch ale, a dark saison, and an imperial stout that have been aged in wine and whiskey barrels.
“We thought this was good, but it was kind of missing something, so we added in 2 percent of imperial stout from a barrel and, all of a sudden, it created way more depth and became a more interesting beer,” Pauwels says. “As breweries, we can learn from the wine industry, where small amounts can make a big difference.”
At Goose Island, the base, unaged imperial stout for Bourbon County has always been as important as the finished product. Brewmaster Jared Jankoski says that while many bourbon barrel–aged beers can be overpowered by the barrel’s flavor, Bourbon County Brand Stout can stand up to the aging.
“Many bourbon barrel–aged beers are rather rough and overtaken by the barrel; some are blended to account for this. Bourbon County Brand Stout is unblended, and the base beer makes this possible,” he says. “It’s a massive and hostile fermentation of a very high-gravity, long-boiled wort that results in a rich beer that is ready to take on a bourbon barrel.”
But, as in the development of additional ingredients in things like oak-aged sour ales with fruit, brewers are exploring the addition of fruits and other ingredients to add to these barrel-aged dark beers.
Iterations of Bourbon County Brand Stout have included toasted coconut additions, a rye whiskey barrel–aged Bourbon County aged with whole cherries (plus another variety with blackberry and raspberry), and Backyard Rye, which included mulberries harvested by Goose Island.
Sometimes, when barrels are hard to source or when brewers don’t want to deal with the inherent risks of barrel aging, breweries use oak chips to impart similar flavors.
Pauwels says Boulevard sources peated Scotch barrel chips to age its Imperial Scotch Ale, which lends some of the smoky charred flavors to the beer. Called Scotch on Scotch, the beer is described by Boulevard as a liquid fireplace, and is a hearty, warming beer brewed with a touch of smoked malt and hopped with Magnum, Chinook, and Northern Brewer hops for a spicy earthiness.
Even when Boulevard sources barrels that don’t allow it to scale up for widespread distribution, such as eight-gallon barrels that were used for whiskey and then to age maple syrup, the brewery is able to turn it into a taproom exclusive. Called Requiem for a Pancake, the imperial brown ale was aged in those barrels, turning it into a dessert-like beer. “It was like port wine; we chose an imperial brown ale instead of a stout because we didn’t want any coffee or chocolate notes overpowering it,” Pauwels says. “We wanted to have something caramely that worked with the maple.”