Barrel-aging beer has been happening for centuries, yet it’s only recently that the concept has taken hold again with the new breed of extremely experimental craft brewers across the world.
There are questions of how long to age, in what type of barrel, what type of beer works best, and if the age of the barrel itself is as important as the length of time the beer is in the barrel. All of this is up for debate, and to be determined by individual palates.
First off, most beer can be barrel-aged, from lagers to ales and anything outside this spectrum. Basic aging can be done in any wood barrel, or by adding wood chips to the vats during fermentation, thereby bringing out an innate flavor and aroma. Additional flavoring can be achieved by using a barrel that was previously used for whiskey, bourbon, rum, or even tequila. The result is a full-bodied hybrid mix that has hints of taste from both the beer and spirit.
One of the pioneers in this resurgence of wood barrel-aging was Scotland’s Innis & Gunn. In 2002, a whisky distiller approached Dougal Sharp, a top Brew Master at Caledonian Brewery, to create a method of brewing whisky that would give it an ale finish. This was done by conditioning the whisky barrels with beer, and then later discarding the beer. A happy accident occurred when the beer was sampled instead of being tossed out; in 2003 Innis & Gunn was launched in Edinburgh, co-founded by Sharp and his brother.
Their award-winning Innis & Gunn Original beer is matured in American white oak Bourbon barrels, and the company now produces over a dozen different brews, including the annual Independence Day, a collaboration of Scottish malted barley, zesty American hops, and hints of a barrel oak finish. Sharp confides, “We owe much of our success to the U.S. market, because it was the American Oak bourbon barrels that sparked the beginning of Innis & Gunn.”
Here in America, there are several established breweries accomplishing their own success, such as the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, which claims to be “America’s first and oldest craft brewery, with roots dating back to the California gold rush.” They have been making a barrel-aged beer for several years using rye whisky barrels from their own distillery, called Our Barrel Ale (OBA).
Bourbon barrels are legally only allowed to be used once, and therefore they are readily available and often used for experimentation. Abita Brewing in Louisiana produces their Bourbon Street Imperial Stout by aging it in small batch Bourbon barrels, which is combined with the roasted flavors from the malt and toasted vanilla. Great Divide out of Denver has created an Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout that would work wonderfully as a brunch accompaniment. Avery Brewing in Boulder has gone even further to create a Barrel-Aged series that they state is “crafted on a one-and-done basis; brewed once and never again.”
The annual Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago is the first and largest event of its kind dedicated to the art of wood barrel beer aging, and is a great place to indulge in the unknown. Many rare and one-of-a-kind limited edition beers can be found there, as well as some only available during the festival. Last year there were nearly 100 breweries and over 300 different beers available to sample. For those with a willingness to try something out of the ordinary with beer, there are plenty of options on the market these days.