The Potent Flavors of Barrel-Aged Beer
Headlining a pairings dinner or as a secret ingredient, barrel-aged brews are gaining traction.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: Pretty much any beer style you can think of has been aged in some sort of barrel by a craft brewery. Bourbon-barrel imperial stouts. Brandy-barrel barley wines. Rum-barrel pumpkin ales. The list could go on. If you can imagine it, you can drink it.
Barrel-aged beers in particular, which often spend months or years aging in wood before consumers sip them, present creative options for restaurants.
Generally speaking, these beers tend to fall into two main groups. The first uses either fresh-wood barrels or barrels that previously held spirits, specifically with the intent of pulling additional flavors into the base beer. The second group of beers, such as Belgian lambics and the multitude of American sours now produced, uses the physical characteristics of these porous barrels to encourage the growth of wild yeast and friendly bacteria that make those beers so endearing. Both groups fall into the barrel-aged category, but we’ll focus on the first group: beers that intentionally acquire that barrel character.
I chatted with Jesse Friedman, co-founder and brewmaster at Almanac Beer Company based in San Francisco. Almanac released its first beer back in 2011, has since put forth dozens of barrel-aged offerings, and has incorporated bourbon, brandy, rye, red wine, and a variety of other barrels. When we spoke, Almanac was preparing to blend its third batch of Dogpatch Sour, a barrel-aged wild ale with California Rainier cherries and sourdough yeast, and to release a tequila-barrel-aged stout, which combines that barrel’s spiciness with the stout’s dark malts.
The company’s barrel-aging facility, based in San Jose, recently surpassed a thousand barrels.
Friedman, who was in New York City meeting with restaurant owners and working very closely with restaurant staff to properly showcase Almanac’s beers, says, “Barrel-aged beers are really an affordable luxury. We’re very comfortable competing at the low end of the wine price list.”
Often retailing at $10 or higher for a 375-milliliter bottle, these beers are priced modestly compared to wine but priced a bit higher than a typical IPA. Conveying why the higher price is warranted requires some nuance.
“One of the best things we do is the staff training: We bring the beer in, taste it with the wait staff, and talk to them about it,” he explains. “We give them the vocabulary and the tools to talk about the beer—and if they’re excited about it, the sales will always reflect that.”
He recommends such beers be stored upright, poured gently, and served in something other than a pint glass, given the higher alcohol levels these beers often have. Snifters, tulips, or stemware tend to be more appropriate vessels, helping to focus aromas and elevating the experience for guests. Having been aged for months or years, these beers are worth showing off.
“If you’re going to stick a barrel-aged beer on your menu, that beer is going to be markedly more expensive than the pilsner or the IPA listed right next to it,” Friedman adds. “So you have to help the restaurant communicate to people what makes that beer so great.”
Adventures in Pairing
Restaurants like the Ale House at Amato’s in Denver have already incorporated barrel-aged beers as a key element of their operations. Of its 40 taps, half rotate regularly, and the restaurant usually features five to 10 barreled releases from Colorado and beyond. The restaurant also hosts monthly dinners around these beers, including one that was held during American Craft Beer Week in May.
Dustin Lessard, Amato’s beer expert, notes that 70–80 percent of the beers at those dinners tend to be barrel-aged. “It creates a very exciting menu for us and for the guests. … It allows us to be a little more of a beer destination, if you will.”
These beers also present interesting opportunities on the pairing side, and Lessard works closely with Amato’s chef and each dinner’s featured breweries, such as nearby Breckenridge and River North, two that were featured in the American Craft Beer Week dinner. High-alcohol imperial stouts and barley wines often tend to overpower lighter fare like seafood and chicken, but that particular dinner showcased the diversity of beers in barrels: A 7.5 percent ABV saison aged in white wine barrels was paired with the opening course of seared sea scallops with ginger-raisin marmalade, while Breckenridge’s 4.7 percent ABV Vanilla Porter aged in American oak was served with caramel corn panna cotta and peanut brittle.
The dinners are priced to be profitable but still remain on the affordable side. It’s a method for further engaging with core customers, many of whom look forward to the dinners, which usually occur monthly. Attendance is typically capped at 50 people to allow for the type of intimate environment such dinners are best suited for, with a brewer or brewery representative introducing each beer and offering background info, tasting notes, process tidbits, and the like.
Amato’s chef often comes out after plating to chat with guests. Dinners are typically $50 to $80, usually priced toward the low end, and include four to five courses. Careful portion sizes of the beer are a must and are generally less than 6 ounces since the ABV levels for some beers may exceed 20 percent.
Cooking with these beers also adds an entirely new element. Sean Z. Paxton, who hosts The Home Brewed Chef on The Brewing Network, has built some of the most elaborate beer-and-food-pairing experiences in the country, often using barrel-aged beers as both an accompaniment to his food and an ingredient in his dishes.
“It’s really fascinating because you think about the base liquor that was in the barrel beforehand, and then how that changes the beer,” Chef Paxton says.
On the über-elaborate side of the spectrum, his Deconstructed event with Firestone Walker Brewing Company, held in October 2011 in Paso Robles, California, incorporated all eight of the beers that were blended into that brewery’s 15th anniversary release: XV. He paired and cooked with each individual beer. Creative pairings included chocolate cake infused with Bourbon-barrel oatmeal stout and sea scallops cold-smoked with actual barrel wood, and then paired with beer aged in the same wood.
Used spirit barrels will offer auxiliary notes from what previously filled them, often alongside oak, vanilla, coconut, or tropical qualities from the wood itself. Chef Paxton encourages less direct heat for well-hopped styles like many barley wines and imperial stouts, which tend to get astringent if over-reduced. They’re often better for braising—or in a pudding or custard.
Chef Paxton also notes something less obvious about barrel-aged beers: Since the base beer was put into barrels in the first place, often to age for months or years at a time, they will generally hold up better over time than a typical beer.
“You’re not really worried about the hops being fresh or the beer aging, because it’s already been aged,” he says. Mileage will vary by beer, but—whether hefty and liquored, or tart and acidic—these beers are often more durable.
“This is a beer that’s special,” Chef Paxton says, adding that the time, intent, and execution of why the beer and paired dish were tuned that way raises the barrel-aged experience one more notch.