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Barrel-Aged beer: the trend that’s taking its time and coming into its own.

Beer For the A­­­ges

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A look into different aging methods for barrel-aged brews.

By Keith Loria December 2015 Beer

It’s long been a practice to age wine and spirits for better flavor, but a recent trend has found many in the beer world experimenting with aging methods, coupled with an increased desire from consumers for barrel-aged brews.

While it was once common practice to use steel tanks or line barrels with pitch to seal out external flavors, brewmasters are now welcoming these intrusions with open arms.

Jeff Josenhans, a certified sommelier, cicerone, and top-rated mixologist for The Grant Grill in San Diego, California, says the latest trends for barrel-aging in the beer world is focused on highlighting different barrel seasonings, otherwise known as the lingering flavor of what was in the barrel prior to beer.

“The market is seeing more and more exotic barrels such as rum, tequila, and wine barrel seasonings prior to putting a beer in the barrel,” he says. “The types of barrels being used can really be suited well for different type brews that are beyond the typical whiskey-aged stout, for example. I’ve seen some fantastic sour beers on the market using wine barrels lately, which highlight how diverse barrel usage really can be.”

Scott Kerkmans, coordinator of the Beer Industry Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver and one of the first five Certified Cicerones in the world, has seen tequila barrels becoming the latest thing in beer brewing—especially beers with a higher level of bitterness.

“Tequila offers its own unique tastes, but it comes with some challenges as the flavors can be so strong they don’t let the beer shine through,” he says. “Also, more and more small breweries are aging in their own foeders (wooden barrels) instead of relying on acquiring barrels from distilleries.”

Jim McCune, executive director of the craft beer division at EGC Group in Melville, New York, says despite the recent popularity, wooden barrels have been essential for aging premium beer for centuries, helping to improve the flavor, color, aroma, and complexity.

“Brewers are constantly looking for new and exciting barrels to age their beer. Most breweries use bourbon and wine barrels, but one company I work with, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, also uses Madeira and Cognac barrels to brew unique-tasting aged ales,” he says, adding that anything that’s not too hoppy or light will age well in barrels. “The bigger, stronger, darker beers definitely age the best.”

The Rise of Aging

Kerkmans believes that Goose Island in Chicago was the first brewery to start using barrels extensively in the mid-90’s.

“In Denver, Bull and Bush Brewery and New Belgium were the first to catch my attention with it, but now it seems like every small brewery at least tries it,” he says. “Many of our advisory board members that come to campus every quarter are quickly showing us the value of educating our students in barrel aging.”

Josenhans notes the popularity of barrel aging in the beer world has arisen due to two things.

“One is the fact that historically beer was stored and aged in wooden barrels. Of course, this was not by design to affect the flavor of beer, but a necessity due to the lack of stainless steel and being prior to when modern brewing equipment came about,” he says. “I also think that barrel aging of cocktails came about just before it became common in brewing, as a way to enhance the flavor of beer.”

Aside from a small uptick in alcohol percentage, the main reason brewers barrel age is to impart some of the wood character, which is usually oak, into their beer.

“If the barrel isn’t new, then the beer will also pick up notes from the previous inhabitant,” Kerkmans says. “In the case of whiskey, that may be a smoked tobacco flavor, but if you use a red wine barrel, you may get completely different flavors and a nice vinous character.”

Getting the Job Done

Obtaining previously used barrels from distilleries is still the most popular method for breweries to barrel age. This is an economical approach as new barrels are expensive, and the characteristics that come out of the wood after it has been used for something like bourbon add a whole new element to a stout or a barleywine—you can’t create those flavors any other way.

Sam Rose, brewmaster and director of operations for Pig Pounder Brewery in Greensboro, North Carolina, notes another trend in barrel aging technique is souring, in which beers are exposed to bacterial cultures that contribute tart or vinegary sour notes to the beers.

“We are seeing a number of breweries setting up separate facilities for this. The primary purpose is to separate the bacterial cultures from the normal brewery operations in order to prevent cross-contamination, but an added advantage is often the creation of a new taproom facility, as with Wicked Weed in Asheville (North Carolina),” he says.

Blending is typically done based on the flavors achieved in each individual cask. Samples are taken and precisely blended for tasting.

“Often we blend our barrel-aged beers with some amount of non–barrel aged, to help add sweetness and complexity to the barrel-aged stock,” Rose says. “Sours are often blended to achieve better consistency. Either way, barrel aged beers must be tasted and blended with each new batch to be packaged.”

This process literally transforms a beer. It becomes a completely different liquid than it was prior to entering the barrel. According to McCune, the flavors that develop can be tart and wine-like, or can be smooth and mellow. It all depends on the barrel and the base beer chosen.

“It just adds complexity,” Josenhans says. “And I am definitely not saying that un-aged brews can’t be complex, but barrel-aging adds an element of surprise and creativity to beer outside of the styles that brewers love to play around with and consumers like to explore.”

The type of beer preferable for barrel aging differs depending on the type of barrel aging going on. For sours, the range is everything from very light, dry beers, which benefit from lactic souring (tart), to darker, sweeter beers, which benefit from acetic souring (vinegary). When barrel aging, darker, heavier bodied ales (stouts, browns, imperial ales) tend to hold up better with the intense bourbon flavors achieved.

Final Thoughts

Barrel aging beer represents the ultimate quest for flavor intensity, and the next frontier in craft brewing.

As the availability of craft beer increases and the market becomes more saturated with quality offerings, incorporating the complex and unexpected flavors that barrels can bring to a brew might just save the segment from stagnation.