Venture into any craft brewery, and you’ll likely find a stack of barrels in plain sight.
Although the art of fermentation in wood goes back centuries, the American craft beer movement is unique for its prolific practice of aging beers in bourbon barrels. Many established breweries dedicate one or more days per year to celebrate the release of their most prized barrel-aged beers. Naming every brewery with a prestigious barreling program would be a daunting endeavor, but the following list showcases nine can’t-miss programs and the beer they produce.
Goose Island, Chicago, IL
When Greg Hall decided to put beer in bourbon barrels at Goose Island in 1992, it had a profound effect on craft brewing culture. Each November on Black Friday, a multitude of beer fans camp, line up and otherwise embark on the hunt for their favorite Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. The growth, evolution and sustained success of the Goose Island barreling program for more than 25 years has allowed the brewery to construct an expansive barrel warehouse that’s large enough for weddings and special events. In fact, the barrel warehouse hosts a high-end, chef-prepared brewer’s dinner the night before Chicago’s lauded Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers (FoBAB).
Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Revolution may not be the first in Chicago to develop a bourbon barrel-aging program, but its award-winning Deep Woods series has become highly coveted. Rev uniquely chooses to release its award-winning barrelled beer in stages. Ten variants including rye-aged, vanilla, scotch ale and coffee will be released on four dates between October and January this season. Rev also participates in the Jameson Irish Whiskey Caskmates program—they traveled to Dublin in 2019 to brew Fist City Pale Ale and place it in Jameson barrels. It’s clear that Revolution is no second fiddle in the Second City, nor anywhere else for that matter.
Central Waters, Amherst, WI
Beer writers routinely include Central Waters’ barrel-aged beers when they assemble their “best ofs” at the end of each year. The beer most sought out is Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, which superbly balances the booziness and vanilla from the bourbon barrel with the roastiness and chocolate notes of the imperial stout. But don’t look past their other bourbon barrel-aged versions such as cherry stout, barleywine, Belgian quad and Scotch ale. There’s also Black Gold, which spends three glorious years in bourbon barrels. Central Waters is not afraid to play with ingredients, either. Barrel-aged beers include Space Ghost Imperial Stout with ghost peppers, Brewhouse Coffee Stout and Rye Barrel Chocolate Porter.
Weldwerks Brewing, Greeley, CO
While many know Weldwerks for its award-winning Juicy Bits New England IPA and dedication to releasing more than 100 beers per year, the brewery is truly adept at bourbon barrel aging. In fact, many among the Weldwerks crew are true whiskey nerds, which shows in how they handle the marriage of bourbon and beer. The brewery’s most famous bourbon barrel-aged beer is its Medianoche (or “Noche”), which once received the highest rating at the Great American Beer Festival by attendees. The big, bold Imperial Stout is brewed with flaked oats and copious amounts of chocolate and crystal malts. Then it’s boiled continuously for nearly 36 hours. After fermentation, it’s aged in seven-year Breckenridge Distillery bourbon barrels for more than 18 months. Variants include coconut, rye-vanilla, Mexican and bourbon-brandy.
Avery Brewing, Boulder, CO
Avery released its first barrel-aged beer in 2009. Ten years later, the brewery now operates an extensive barrel-aging program with a warehouse that can hold several thousand oak barrels. Such favorites include Tweak, a bourbon barrel-aged coffee stout, and Uncle Jacob’s Stout, an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. But don’t expect to just find bourbon barrels because Avery uses barrels that once held scotch, gin, wine and rum. And one could argue that few breweries execute rum barrel-aging better than Avery, demonstrated by its popular Plank’d—a rum barrel-aged coconut porter—and Rumpkin, a rum barrel-aged pumpkin ale. Recent special releases have also included a PB&J stout aged in bourbon barrels with raspberries and peanuts; Bon-Bon Cerise BBA stout with cherry, cacao nibs and vanilla beans; and a double-barreled maple stout.
Deschutes Brewing, Bend, OR
After more than 30 years of brewing, it’s no surprise that Deschutes has developed a reputation for making some of the best beer on the market, which includes its tremendous barreling program. When one thinks if Deschutes, it’s tough not to think of Abyss, an imperial stout that was half-aged in bourbon barrels, wine barrels and American oak. Abyss first emerged in the fall of 2006 and received the coveted GABF Gold Medal one year later. In 2018, the beer won Platinum at the World Beer Cup. Deschutes also brews its esteemed, multi-award winning “The Dissident,”—an Oud Bruin style that ages for almost two years—as well as Black Mirror Barleywine and the brewery’s annual anniversary release of a barrel-aged version of its acclaimed Black Butte Porter.
Fremont Brewing, Seattle, WA
Fremont Brewing has some of the best hoppy beers around, which is no surprise given its proximity to a wealth of hops farms. But B-Bomb (formerly known as Bourbon Abominable) has grown into a favorite that’s the star of any bottle-share party. The beer has amassed a litany of prestigious awards at FoBAB, the World Cup and the Sip Awards, to name a few. B-Bomb—a bourbon barrel-aged imperial winter ale that pours jet black—spends eight to 12 months in American Oak before it’s blended with nine, 12 and 24-month-old barrel-aged winter ale. The complex process results in a blend abound in flavor, providing drinkers with notes of bourbon, oak, cacao, leather and toffee. In recent years, Fremont has released other highly-awarded variants like coconut and cinnamon-coffee, which have only afforded the beer more praise.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, CA
Located in the heart of wine country, Firestone Walker beers exude elegance and refinement. Firestone’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson has a chemistry background and attended the illustrious Siebel Institute in Chicago. He cut his teeth in the 1990s at the then-independent Goose Island as its cellarman when the brewery was first developing its barrel program. Matt has been at Firestone Walker for almost 20 years and helped cultivate the vision laid out by founders Adam Firestone and David Walker. The brewery’s Proprietor’s Vintage Series oozes with sophistication, comprised of various barreled stouts, barleywines and cocktail-inspired ales. The brewery and many of its barrel-aged beers have been awarded numerous honors and awards. Firestone Walker enjoys its barreling so much that one of its most popular annual events is named “From the Barrel.”
Bottle Logic Brewing, Anaheim, CA
This California brewery came to FoBAB in Chicago in 2018 and not only went home with a gold medal for its Fundamental Observation, but took home the coveted “Best in Show” award—which is no surprise because the beer has been receiving honors since its first release in 2015. If that’s not enough, the brewery produced an even bigger version of Fundamental Observation called Fundamental Theorem, a more robust iteration that exhibits big barrel and bourbon flavors with an ABV just shy of 21 percent. It’s finished with a blend of Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla beans. If that’s too big and rich for your taste, Bottle Logic also produces several other barreled beers with plenty of creative flavor adjuncts.