The craft beer world is all about innovation and reinvention. Numerous styles have been modified and tweaked, and some new ones created as well. However, one of the trends that’s getting a lot of focus these days is the process of barrel aging beer. This is actually nothing new – it’s something old that’s been brought back. Barrel aging was the way it was done for hundreds of years (perhaps thousands) before the advent of modern brewing and stainless steel.
What Is Barrel Aging?
In its simplest form, barrel aging is nothing more than allowing beer to age in a wooden barrel for a specific amount of time before either consumption or bottling. The process today is both experimental and traditional, and consumers have found a lot to love about barrel-aged brews.
Why Is Barrel Aging Done in the First Place?
Why would anyone want to age beer in wooden barrels at all, when there is stainless steel and other options available? While stainless steel is certainly sterile, it doesn’t do a thing for the character of beer while it’s aging. The same can be said for aging beer in glass – it doesn’t help improve the quality or flavor of the beer. Wood does. How so?
First, aging beer in wood gives the brew elements of the wood’s own flavor profile. Oak is the most frequently used wood in the industry, and lend the beer oaky notes. However, other types of wood are used as well, and you’ll also find different treatments for wood depending on what the brewer wants to achieve in terms of flavor, taste and aroma. For example, toasted oak is a nice, mellow flavor that works well with numerous styles, and comes from actually heating (sometimes burning) the wood barrels before the aging process begins.
New wood barrels are not used to age beer. That’s because they can impart a very bitter, astringent taste to the finished product. Instead, most breweries utilize previously used barrels – whiskey is the most famous, but you’ll also find rum, rye and other types. Wooden barrels are only used once in distilling spirits, and then they’re tossed out. That means these barrels are widely available, and they’re pretty cheap, much more affordable than having new barrels made, and then toasting or otherwise aging the wood to make it fit for beer.
Bourbon barrel-aged beer has become almost ubiquitous today – you’ll find dozens of different craft breweries putting out their own variations. However, there are also numerous others. In addition to the spirit styles mentioned above, you’ll also find a host of wine barrels used. Red and white wine residues inside the barrels lend an immediately noticeable flavor to beer aged in those barrels.
Is It Conditioning or Just Flavoring?
In the past, wood barrels were used for conditioning. In other words, the beer was actually fermented to some degree within the barrels. That’s not the case today. Most barrel-aged beers are not ‘conditioned’ in the barrel. They’re aged in order to impart specific flavor characteristics. That’s not to say there are no barrel-conditioned beers on the market. There are. They’re just fewer in number, and generally only available at beer festivals, or special tasting events at the brewery itself.
So, most breweries add fully fermented beer to the barrels and let it sit for a week or two. The longer the beer sits in the barrel, the more flavor it will pick up. After aging, the beer will have to be re-carbonated and then bottled, or put into pressurized kegs for dispensing at festivals and other events.
What Makes a Good Barrel?
In the world of barrel-aged beer, freshness matters. The sooner beer can be put into the barrel after the original liquid was emptied, the more flavor will be imparted to the brew. Old barrels generally impart far less flavor, and there are other problems as well. As the alcohol residue dries, mold and bacteria can thrive in the wood. This can ruin an entire batch of beer very quickly.
Generally, spirit barrels should be “wet”. That is, they should still have some spirit residue inside the barrel. These do not have to be rinsed prior to use and beer can be added directly without any worry about potential spoilers. Wine barrels generally need to be rinsed in hot water in order to eliminate sulfur, which can impart unwanted flavors to the beer (think rotten eggs).
Barrels can be used twice for aging beer. The first aging will impart the full flavor experience to the brew, including any alcohol notes from the previous use of the barrel (whiskey, red wine, etc.). The second aging will impart mostly wood notes to the beer, with only a little flavor from the alcohol. After the second use, the barrels should be discarded.
Home brewers can barrel age their own brews pretty easily thanks to the wide availability of perused whiskey and other spirit barrels. However, the scale of production necessary to fill even one barrel means that home brewers have to be producing a good bit of beer first (whiskey barrels hold over 52 gallons). For those who aren’t quite up to that production level yet, a similar effect can be achieved by using oak chips in the secondary ferment. You’ll find a wide range of oak chip styles out there, from toasted to whiskey barrel remnants to wine-soaked and everything in between.
Where to Find Barrel-Aged Beer
You don’t have to look far to find barrel-aged beer these days. There are dozens of varieties at most package stores that sell craft beer. You’ll also find them at festivals, and being tapped for tasting events at breweries. However, if you’re looking for cask conditioned beer, rather than barrel-aged beer, festivals and events will be your best chance to sample these true rarities of the brewer’s art.