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Barrel-Aged Beer

By Arkaidy Wisniowska on

Photo by Tamara Malaniy

An Ode to Barrel-Aged Craft Beer

An increasingly captivating trend, barrel-aged craft beer can be found on store shelves and in brewery taprooms the world over. These uniquely conditioned libations take traditional brewing to “the next level” and if you’ve ever wondered what the hell barrel-aging really is, you’re about to take a lesson in barrel-aged perfection.

The History, a Preamble

The answer to “who did it first” on this one is a bit difficult. Like being put on the spot when you get called on in high school math class to answer a question you weren’t paying any attention to. Uhm…uhm…uhm…except we totally ARE paying attention and what we are here to tell ya is that the information, as usual, can be a little all over the map.

It seems that originally, it all started with STORING beer, not so much as AGING it for any particular reason (whether that be flavor or preservation). Centuries ago in the days of Mesopotamia, the Sumerians stored their beer in animal skins, as was customary to do so for many items such as spices, flours, and other liquids. At the time, this was considered innovative.

Once this method ran its course and evolution ushered humans down the line of civilization, ceramic vessels called amphoras were constructed to transport goods instead. As one can imagine, these vessels were fragile and would break easily, especially on long voyages by ship.

Eventually, vessels constructed of wood slowly replaced the amphoras. These vessels evolved into barrels, which where tapered on both ends and tightly cinched using wood or metal. This made transporting many things much easier. Barrels would remain the traditional method of shipping for nearly 2,000 years.

The problem with this is that beer wasn’t just stored in barrels, it was sometimes fermented in them, too. After being reused over and over, well, you can imagine the gunk and bacteria that would seep into the wood and linger in the cracks, getting absorbed into everything. This was no bueno.

So, history of barrels. Check.

Now, onto when beer was INTENTIONALLY aged in barrels purely for flavor and experimentation.

As majority has it, in 1992, brewmaster Greg Hall of Goose Island Beer Co. filled six Jim Beam barrels with beer, did the thing, and the first mainstream barrel-aged beer was born: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.

Hall took this beer to that year’s Great American Beer Festival and raised eyebrows, and rumors, about just what he had done.

This fusion of expert precision and pure risk taking did not wash off the palates of those who tasted it that year. As a matter of fact, after the festival, the market quickly became wide-open, and boy did others come flooding in.

Different Barrels, Different Results

Beer can be aged in barrels that have held both wine and liquor. Among the most popular are barrels that have previously held:

  • Chardonnay
  • Burgundy
  • Bordeaux
  • Brandy
  • Port Wine
  • Cognac
  • Sherry
  • Rye
  • Bourbon
  • Whiskey
  • Rum
  • Tequila
  • Scotch

Additionally, the type of wood a barrel is made of is also high on the considerations list. Oak barrels are the most abundant and readily available on the market. But, if experimentation is the name of the game, one can also try:

  • Cherry
  • Walnut
  • Pine
  • Cedar
  • Chestnut
  • Redwood
  • Hickory

Each combination of barrel styles has its own completely distinct set of aromas, flavors, and nuances. For example, using an oak barrel will impart a soft vanilla flavor to a beer; Chardonnay barrels, a distinct buttery flavor; Bourbon barrels, a sharp, heavy tone, almost like that of caramel. Stunning.

Your First Level Walkthrough to Barrel-Aging

Of note, barrel-aging is usually reserved for beers with a higher alcohol content. This is because as a beer sits on the remnants of one of these fine barrels, it absorbs the flavors of not just the alcohol previously held in the barrel, but of the wood as well. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Strong, high-gravity beers can absorb the flavors of the barrel they are aged in, yet not be overtaken by them. Beers with light, fresh, crisp flavors are usually best left alone and bottled rather than aged. But, I mean, if someone wanted to test that out and send me a sample, I wouldn’t say no.

For the most part, you can expect barrels that once held red wine to age longer, and those aged in delicate white whine barrels will quickly become overtaken by the flavors of the barrel if aged too long. The exact time it takes is a skill honed through experience, and lots of research.

So, as promised, here is your first level walkthrough of how a beer is barrel-aged. If you plan to try barrel-aging your own beer, please take the information from each step and do further research to come to the best and most relevant conclusion for your brewing and aging goals.

FIRST - You Need the Beer

You need to have a batch of really good beer to age. This list is not exclusive and as with everything related to brewing, open to interpretation. That said, you can usually count on:

  • Porters
  • Stouts
  • Barleywines
  • Sours
  • Saisons
  • Amber Ales
  • Red Ales
  • Double IPA’s

Anything with the word IMPERIAL in it

Keep in mind that your beer should ideally already be at the end of its fermentation stage, but not yet carbonated. If your brew is ready to bottle, it’s ready to barrel-age. This should buy you plenty of time to find the perfect barrel.

SECOND - You Need the Barrel

Choose a barrel using the style recommendations above. If you really, really, really don’t want to use a real barrel, you can achieve different levels of aging using wood chips or wood spirals. It’s not something I would personally recommend, so I won’t go over that here. Just know that it is a “thing” if acquiring even a small barrel is not an option for you.

Distilleries often sell used barrels, and you can get them readily online from multiple sources. It’s best to stick with freshly emptied barrels, so do your research and get a good one.

THIRD - You Need the Method

I’m not a brewmaster, although I do enjoy brewing my own beer. That said, these are the general steps I would suggest to include in your barrel-aging method:

  1. Make sure your barrel is prepared, drained, and inspected.
  2. Find a cool place to store your barrel(s). A basement, a cellar, a garage, a closet at the end of your grandma’s weird and creaky hallway - anywhere with a steady temperature that is in the correct range for the beer you are aging.
  3. Fill your barrel with your fermented beer and seal up the “bunghole” with an airlock, as you did during your first fermentation.
  4. Allow the beer to age. There is HUGE variation on how long to age a beer. Some beers age in only a month, others age for 2 or more long, crazy years. Your recipe, type of barrel, aging conditions, and ultimate goal for your brew, will all be determining factors on just how long to age. Small samples can be taken during aging but only with sanitized equipment, and only sparingly, as foreign particles and bacteria can easily sneak into a beer and piss you the hell off if your beer doesn’t turn out right.
  5. Siphon the beer as you would during a normal bottling process and bottle/keg/can as you desire. Many barrel brews have a low carbonation level, so if you want something that is more carbonated, plan accordingly.

Harnessing the Perfect Flavour

So profound and refined that yes, it deserves to be spelled with a ‘u’. Maybe even with your pinky up while typing…if you’re as excited about this stuff as I am.

The sheer science, math, artistry, and pure madness that is poured into the brewing process of a barrel-aged beer is extraordinary. We’re talking the kind of beer that makes the tip of your tongue and all 4,000 of your taste buds lose their virginity and everything they thought they ever knew about beer - by the second sip.

It’s not a task to be taken lightly, and given the high level of beer that’s pouring from barrels in taprooms all over the United States, no one else seems to think so either.

You might think aging a beer could make it too strong or too bitter, but quite the opposite effect is achieved through this process. The vanillin and wood tannins left in used barrels soften the ethanol in the beer while adding pleasant, smooth tones.

This is where the mad scientist - erhm brewer - comes in. He or she must understand the intricate flavors they are dealing with in each type of barrel. They have to understand the beer they are brewing, and they have to know how the two will marry. Then, they have to know how to throw all of that out the window and go with their gut to make the most perfect, unique, wildly appealing brew.

So You Homebrew, But Can You Barrel-Age?

By now you should have a fairly confident grasp on the history and process of barrel-aging. Maybe at some point you’d even fancy aging some beer yourself? Do it! Barrels come in a variety of sizes and of course, all the styles we talked about above. Some may be harder to find than others so when in doubt, go with an oak barrel.

Barrel-aging seems like it’s “different”, but once you have the process down, you might be surprised at what a little (or a lot) of patience can get you.

Perhaps some of these killer beer + barrel combinations will inspire you to play:

  • Imperial Porter + Rum barrel
  • Barleywine + Bourbon barrel
  • Amber Ale + Rye barrel
  • Saison + Wine barrel
  • IPA + Bourbon barrel
  • Belgian Sour + Wine barrel

Exemplary Barrel-Aged Perfection

If you aren’t scrambling for brewing supplies and barrels just yet, but want to appreciate a perfectly aged beer, here are just a few brews that we’ve paired down and consider iconic to the method:

Goose Island Beer - Bourbon County Stout

Known as the first to bring barrel-aging to the mainstream, Goose Island first released their beautiful Bourbon County Stout in 1992 at the GABF. As of 2019, Goose Island has just released a jaw-dropping lineup of Bourbon County variants that is just inspiring. This includes a Double Barrel Stout, Wheatwine, Reserve Rye Stout, 2-Year Reserve Stout, Cafe de Olla Stout, Mon Cheri Stout, Proprietor’s Stout, and something called a Vertical Collection. Now the only problem is…which to try first!

Cigar City Brewing - Jai Alai White Oak IPA

This American oak-aged version of the classic Jai Alai IPA is a wonderful rendition. The white oak adds a smooth vanilla essence to the hoppy notes already present in this amber colored brew. Medium carbonation allows enough effervescence, but not too much to cover up its delicate and elegant flavors.

Deschutes Brewery - The Abyss Barrel-Aged Cognac

We think this one has been discontinued, but it deserves another moment in the sun. This American Imperial Stout is a spinoff from the tradition Abyss brew made by Deschutes. The barrel-aged version is sharp and sour, with lots of fruit, wood, and toasty finishes to enjoy. Add a 12% ABV to this bad boy, and it is one to covet if ever a rare bottle should surface!

Ballast Point Brewing Co. - Victory at Sea Barrel-Aged

Anything Ballast Point puts out is epically amazing and this brew is no different. The original Victory at Sea was a coffee and vanilla infused porter with an excellent flavor profile. Ballast Point has absolutely outdone themselves with this barrel-aged beauty that sat in rye barrels to achieve an exquisite new height of flavor. One truly to get your hands on if you can.

Troegs Independent Brewing - Bourbon Barrel-Aged Troegenator

The original has just become upgraded. While the original double bock brew was a massive hit with Troegs fans, this new barrel-aged version is a silky, deep, massively flavorful beer that oozes caramel, coconut, and vanilla nuances. It’s just so damn good, you have to try it. It’s your barrel-aging homework.