Wine barrels, whiskey barrels, rum barrels…What do they all have in common? Beer!
Beer? Yes, beer. Recently, the trend of barrel-aging beers is quickly becoming the new fad in the craft beer world. Go to any liquor store with a decent beer selection, and you will be inundated with “barrel-aged” this, “oak-aged” that (“this” and “that” usually being some ridiculously long name).
Craft breweries are purchasing barrels that were once used to age Scotch, bourbon, wine, and other kinds of spirits. After fermentation, they transfer beer into these barrels in order to allow the beer to mature and extract unique, subtle flavors. Examples of acquired notes from these barrels include whiskey, vanilla, oak, smoke, and pinot, among many others.
Some breweries are creating new beers that are specifically made for aging in barrels. These are typically high gravity beers, such as imperial stouts, barleywines, and old ales. Other breweries are taking old favorites and creating new variations of the beer by letting it age in barrels before bottling or kegging. One example of this is Stone’s flagship beer, Arrogant Bastard. Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale incorporates a pleasant twist on the already highly-rated beer.
Here are some examples of wood aged beers from Colorado microbreweries. Click on the beer to see its RateBeer.com rating:
Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout (also available in Espresso Oak Aged and Chocolate Oak Aged)
Several breweries (including ones above) are adopting “barrel series” beers in which they release several similarly high-gravity beers aged in different kinds of barrels. There are several other varieties of bourbon-barrel, oak aged, whiskey-blasted big beers available for purchase from breweries outside of Colorado .
Homebrewers can accomplish that barrel-aged taste in their beers a couple different ways. One way, if you're extremely lucky, would be to actually find a barrel fit for aging beer and letting your beer develop in the barrel before bottling or kegging. If you don't have access to said barrels, oak chips can be purchased at homebrew stores. Soak these oak chips in bourbon, Scotch, or your favorite kind of spirits for at least a week. Add these to your secondary fermenter, and rack the beer from primary onto the chips. Let the beer ferment with the soaked chips for at least a week before bottling or kegging. Proceed as usual.
Due to the high alcohol content and complex flavors, many of these beers will benefit from aging. Like aging a fine wine, “laying down” bigger beers will allow the beverage to mature and expose subtle character notes. Click here for a comprehensive discussion on how to store beers (including which beers are and aren’t good for long-term aging); it’s a little different from cellaring wine.
Many of the beers’ labels will actually have a “best-after” date on them based on when the beer was brewed. For example, according to its label, Goose Island ’s Bourbon County Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout will develop in the bottle for up to five years!
Interesting concept, that barrel-aging. Many breweries are following suit and jumping on the bourbon-barrel bandwagon. Before long, the process will be another faded fad. But for now, let’s toast a barrel to the barrel and say Cheers! to beers with big wood.