The World of Barrel-Aged Beer
There’s a new phenomenon sweeping the craft beer world known as “Barrel-Aged Beer.” It’s a given that many spirits are aged in barrels – bourbon, scotch, rum, whiskey – but now beer is getting in on the barrel action, and with amazing results.
The purpose of aging spirits is to enhance or shape the flavor, and what you age the liquid in directly affects that. Wooden casks and barrels – typically oak – naturally give off tannins and vanillin (tannins leave a “dry” taste in your mouth and vanillin is the main extract component from vanilla beans). Bourbon is specifically aged in charred barrels to add another layer of flavor from the caramelized wood sugars. To further complicate things, distillers may choose to age a spirit in several different types of barrels to create a unique flavor profile – think aged bourbon finished off in a wine barrel to give rich berry notes in the finished product.
It seems pretty straight forward to age spirits, but is it the same for beer? Not exactly. While every beer can technically be aged in barrels, not every beer should be barrel aged. The higher the alcohol content and the stronger the beer flavor to begin with, the better the results will be. Stouts, porters, and strong ales are all great candidates for barrel aging, while IPAs and wheat beers are better left outside the barrel.
The second consideration is time. A really great scotch or bourbon is usually aged for decades, but that’s not always the case with beer. If you want a beer with notes of bourbon and wood, 1-2 months is typically enough time to impart those flavors without losing the beer flavor, but if you want more of the tannin and vanillin flavor, leave it in the barrel longer. How much longer? It really depends on individual preference. Most beers max out at 10 years, but that’s not to say a really dark port isn’t going to taste fabulous at 30 years. If patience and science aren’t in your wheelhouse, check out some of these popular barrel-aged beers:
1. Russian River Brewing Supplication – one of the top names in the craft brewing world, based in Santa Rosa, California. This beer is a sour brown ale, aged in a pinot noir wine barrel with sour cherries.
2. Fremont Barrel Aged Dark Star – this award-winning beer comes from the family-owned Fremont Brewery in Seattle, Washington, and is a blend of various Dark Star beers (the oldest being 24 months). They are aged in 7 to 12-year-old bourbon barrels, which give a final tasting note of malt, chocolate, caramel, and pine hops.
3. Firestone Walker Parabola – Firestone Walker was one of the first breweries in the nation to barrel-age beer, and the Parabola beer is an eagerly awaited barrel-aged brew every year. It is aged for one year in a Heaven Hill bourbon barrel, and thus released only once a year in a limited edition batch. The final product has hints of caramel, vanilla, dried fruits, and oak.
For those folks local to Columbus, Ohio, or anyone passing through, it’s worth your time to swing by Zaftig Brewing Company. Here you can experience barrel-aged brewing first hand and sample their delicious beers. They focus on high gravity, full bodied ales meant to be sipped and savored. It's the perfect place to grab a bite to eat and enjoy some unique beers with friends.
Are you a home-brewer ready to impress your friends and family with an authenticate barrel-aged beer tasting? If so, you'll love our new beer flight boards! We're wrapping up the design and build process for these new beauties, so stay tuned for the finished product release date.