more craft brewers are turning to barrel aging to add depth to their beers
The journey had been long and arduous, taking nearly a month in the dank, dark stowage of an Atlantic freight ship. The cargo? Barrels - all gray, scuffed oak, with pitch stained joints between the staves. While these barrels could carry nearly anything liquid - from lamp oils (in some cases, of whale origin) to port wines, in this case, focus on one in particular: a single barrel of ale. Once unloaded, it gets rolled onto the back of a horse drawn cart and is hauled to a nearby pub, where it takes two strong men to hoist it up onto a rack behind the bar. The proprietor places the tap to the face of the barrel and with a quick, forceful blow drives it in. A sample is poured into a thick mug and eagerly drank down. The verdict: Still good. The bar is open, the feast can commence.
While this story may sound more like something out of Game of Thrones than from your local watering hole, you may be surprised to learn that well into last century this was still the way than most beer was transported and consumed. The advent of the stainless steel tank, after WWII, revolutionized the beer industry. It served the same purpose as those oak casks of old: it was impervious to leakage, imparted little flavor to its contents, and didn't allow too much oxygen in. Originally, the barrel wasn't supposed to add flavor to the beer, merely to serve as a neutral vehicle for transport. However, today craft brewers have been using barrels for an entirely different purpose: to become a part of the process and an ingredient in the brew itself.
Oak, the Backbone of Barrel-Aging
For wine, spirits, and beer, oak is king. When aged in oak barrels, a wide variety of flavors and nuances can be imparted to the drink. Depending on various factors, these flavors can range from vanilla, to toast, leather, and of course, oak. Bourbon Whiskey, by law, must be aged for no less than 2 years, in unused, charred oak barrels. This requirement alone makes for the unique, bright flavor profile to which Bourbon is renowned, and also creates a prolific secondary market for charred oak barrels. These barrels are still steeped with what the distiller refers to as the "angels share" - a concentrated essence of the oak and bourbon flavors that are bound up in the wood. Increasingly, craft brewers have been experimenting with bourbon-barrel aged beers, but the time, cost, and variability may seem complicated. FermentAble's new Barrel Aging feature on the dashboard will help to streamline this process, but here are some other "best practices" to stick to.
A barrel broker is a sure bet to get quality, wet barrels from a distiller. Having "wet" barrels is important, ones in which the bourbon has still saturated the staves. Barrels that have dried out can be revived, but the process isn't guaranteed. In addition to leaking, a lot of the flavors will have changed, and there's a risk of bacterial and fungal growth. All of these can be remedied, but with barrel aging already being a time-intensive process, why add more chores on top? Depending on the quality of the barrels, they can run from anywhere between $50 - $200 per. Despite the fact that one barrel may look like all the rest, good practice is to buy the best barrels that you can reasonably afford. Think of it this way: this is a brew that you will be devoting anywhere from 3 months to a year of your life to. It will be taking up room in your brewery for that time as well. You may as well make that time well spent with a decent initial investment in some quality barrels.
Barrel Prep and Care
Depending on what the barrels look like, some level of cleaning and prepping may be necessary. As stated earlier, wet spirits barrels will be in great shape, and should need very little prepping, but the basics are straightforward: pull open the barrel, clean out the inside, scraping off the top layers of soggy char, taking care not to strip it all back. Remember, this char is precisely where all of the flavor resides. Close the barrel back up, check for leaks, and you’re ready to fill. Ensuring that the barrels are airtight is paramount. Oxidation can ruin a beer, and barrels rarely are completely airtight. Factors that can compromise a barrels seal are varied, but the main one is dried out barrels, so here, again, for barrels the fresher the better. To help diminish oxidation, some brewers also flush the kegs with CO2 as an additional measure.
Choosing the Right Beer to Age
Once barrels are acquired and prepped, it is important that you get them filled right away, but before that, you need to know what you will be filling it with. Stout beers aged in bourbon barrels are a good combination, but brewers have been experimenting with nearly anything under the sun. One cardinal rule is this: Barrel aging, if done well, can make a good beer truly great, but it can’t make a mediocre beer great, or even good, for that matter. The foundation of any barrel aged masterpiece is a solid brew.
Age Requires Time
Now it’s time for the waiting game. This can be the most exciting and frustrating time for the brewer, like an expectant father pacing nervously in the waiting room of a hospital. Racking the barrels is the most important part of the process, it’s where the magic happens. The barrels are stored anywhere from weeks to months, depending on what the brewer’s desired outcome is. The barrels need to be stored in a climate controlled environment, with the temperature between 50-60 degrees F, ideally. Some brewers have experimented with fluctuating the temperature gradually, as a way to expedite flavor exchange between the wood and the beer, to mixed results. Take weekly samples, and pull the brew when it’s done. That may sound simple, but like anything in brewing, the beauty is in the details.
Beer of the Past, Beer of the Future
The yearly Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers, in Chicago, IL features hundreds of brewers, all focussed on barrel aged beers. What may have seemed like a fringe experiment 20 years ago now is a staple of the tasting menus of countless craft brewers. The barrel aged style isn’t going anywhere, and it will add depth and nuance to your tasting menus. So have fun with it, and add a barrel aged brew to your menu in the future, for a taste from the past.