While the process of aging wine and spirits in wooden barrels is not new, the idea of beer aging in barrels is something new to most casual beer drinkers. However, this is certainly not true, as for a great number of years beers were traditionally brewed and packaged into wooden vessels – mainly because that was all that was available. As the industrial revolution took place, this began to change for obvious reasons.
As large, mass-produced beer companies began to dominate the beer industry, there was a great decline in the use of wooden vessels. Through the current craft beer revolution we have seen a huge upswing in many traditional brewing methods, along with the inclusion of a wide variety of barrel/wood-aging projects that are being used to impart any number of flavors into the beer, with different varieties of wood imparting different tastes.
Many of these beers have developed a huge cult following over time, such as Founders Brewing Co.’s KBS (Kentucky Bourbon Stout) and Goose Island’s Bourbon County line, which includes both stouts and barley wines. The release of these beers is eagerly awaited each year by a demanding public.
There is certainly no shortage of barrel or wood-aged beers available today, even right here in Northeast Pennsylvania. Our local heroes at Breaker Brewing Company have made the fantastic Abandoned Mine Barley Wine, and Nimble Hill Brewing has also gotten into barrel aging by using some wine barrels from the winery, such as Turbo Diesel, a Russian Imperial Stout aged in port wine barrels.
If you are a fan of the bourbon barrel-aged beers, here is a short list of some to try: Anderson Valley, Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout; New Holland Brewing, Dragon’s Milk; Thirsty Dog, Siberian Night; Boulevard Brewing, Bourbon Barrel Quad (BBQ); Allagash Brewing Company, Curieux (Bourbon Barrel-Aged Tripel); AleSmith, Speedway Stout (Bourbon Barrel Aged); The Lost Abbey, The Angel’s Share; and Firestone Walker, Velvet Merkin.
A wide variety of barrel-aged beers have typically been heavier beers, Belgian darks, barleywines, or stouts, with exceptions due to the strong flavors from the barrels. However, many breweries have begun experimenting with barrel or wood-aging IPAs, most notably with Founder’s release of Doom last year, which is a Double IPA aged in bourbon barrels; this beer made many top 10 lists for best new beer of 2013. Other breweries have been experimenting with this as well, such as Terrapin Brewing’s Oaked Big Hoppy Monster and Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Oaked Unearthly.
The greatest quality that these beers possess is the experimentation that has gone into the creation of the beers. Brewers truly need to understand the qualities they are looking to add to the beer from the exposure to the wood, which has helped them branch out into some new areas in the brewing field. Dogfish Head is no stranger to experimentation, but the brewery’s Palo Santo Marron beer takes the brewery to a new level by aging a fantastic American Brown Ale on Palo Santo wood, as the beer takes on new spicy notes and tips the scales at 12 percent ABV.
Sam Adams has also entered into the barrel-aging arena with its new barrel room projects. It has released New World Tripel, Tetravis, Thirteenth Hour Stout, and Stony Brook Red, all with unique and wonderful flavor varieties and fairly wide availability.
Even the beloved brewery Deschutes has been incorporating barrel-aged beer into its lineup, most recently with Not the Stoic, a Belgian-styled Quad aged in both rye whisky and Pinot Noir barrels for nearly a year.
While the science and brewing knowledge behind the creation of these beers can be a bit overwhelming to casual drinkers, the results are what we truly need to know and understand. Thankfully this can be summarized easily: just remember, wood is good!