What’s up with that?

Chances are, if you are a fan of craft beer, you have probably crossed paths with a barrel-aged beer or two, and wondered, what’s up with that? And, if you’re a full-on neck beard, not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, then you’ve probably spent countless hours waiting on-line to secure a bottle of some “rare” barrel-aged variant from your favorite brewery. At 4:00 in the morning? In the freezing cold? Spitting rain? At $20 plus per bottle?
No worries – you’ve got all that covered, and you are definitely loving every minute of it. The question is, why? Why go to that extreme to get what, after all, is just a bottle of beer? Well – let’s examine this in more depth, ok?
Barrel aging started as an extension of the aggressive attitude that American craft brewers took towards their product – but going there without some background puts the cart in front of the horse, so to speak, which is ass backwards. (Which, literally, would put the cart in front of the donkey? But I digress.) So, let’s start from the beginning, because that’s generally a pretty good place to begin, right?
Historically, most American beers were brewed to a pretty defined flavor profile – mainly lagers, without much deviation from the mean. For the statistically-challenged in the room, that means they pretty much all taste the same. The craft beer world disdainfully lumps these beers into a category known as “macros” – meaning beers that are mass-produced in large quantities. You may know them as Bud, Miller, and Coors, or even a local stalwart such as Old Style.
And you know its true – What’s the difference between a Bud Light, a Miller Light, and a popcorn fart? One of them has an aroma. Ok, that was snarky, but hear me out. The genesis of the craft beer scene was rooted in the sameness of the macro brews. Homebrewers in search of “more flavor” started to experiment with different ingredients and processes, well beyond what was commercially available on beer store shelves.
Early on, this took the form of heavier hop profiles, and the creation of hop-forward IPAs. Three Floyds got their start in this fashion, brewing beers with significantly more hop flavors than were available at the time. Their venerable beer, Alpha King, was the result of this inspiration, and remains a flagship for this brewery to this day. And IPAs are easily the preferred style for most craft beer aficionados to this day (hence the term “hophead” for one who favors such brews).
But the brewers weren’t done there, oh no – they started to brew more and more flavor-packed beers in a multitude of styles – porters, stouts, barley wines, sours, you name it, and using a wider variety of ingredients than ever before. And the brews were great, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Except, craft brewers don’t know how to sit still – they are tinkerers by nature, and very creative. So, I’m thinking that at some point in the past, their thinking went this-a-way: If we can make a beer that’s a ten, then why not an eleven? And that logic is sound, because, as we all know, well, eleven is one more than ten, so it has to be better, right? And then said brewer said “what if”?
What if what, you ask? Well, what if you put a finished beer not into a metal barrel typically used for storage and transportation of beers, but rather into a wooden barrel that was formerly used for the production of spirits? No, not Casper the Friendly ghost kind of spirit, but a bourbon or whiskey, or even a wine, gin or tequila barrel? What would that do to the beer? So some intrepid soul took a perfectly fine stout, and decided to transfer it into a used bourbon barrel….and waited. And with that, barrel-aging was born. (Note that this is different than in-barrel fermentation, where wild yeast already present in the barrel ferments the beer.)
Before we get to the payoff – what a barrel-aged beer tastes actually like, and whether they are worth the effort or not, we need to understand the key difference between metal and wooden barrels. Which is, wood barrels breathe – and with that transfer of oxygen from outside to in, the flavors of the oak barrel are transferred to the beer within.
And with that air transfer, oxidation occurs….and blah blah blah, yada yada yada, yawn, stretch….oh, ok – this is getting too sciency – so let’s break it down for realz. What happens is, basically, the flavor of the base beer is altered by the barrel-aging process, and what spirit the barrel previously held.
So, are barrel aged beers worth the effort? Yes, and no.
There are a lot of reasons why the answer can be no – first and foremost – barrel aging doesn’t make a bad base beer good. If a stout doesn’t hold up on its own merits (or lack thereof), it won’t magically improve because it spent six months aging in a bourbon barrel. In fact, it could even be less palatable, as a bourbon or whiskey barrel can impart a definite “boozy” or hot flavor that dominates the flavor profile. Not good.
Also, barrel aging can make a really good base beer taste off (depending on your palate), because sometimes it’s a crap shoot on how the barrel will affect the base beer. Secondary fermentation can occur, in which case the residual sugar in the beer might ferment a second time with the presence of air-born (or resident in the barrel) yeast, which can make the beer taste funky or sour.
But as for the yes side of the equation – when it works well, the resulting beer is sublime. The aging for a period of time allows for the base beer to mellow a bit; rounding out and softening the rough alcohol edges of higher ABV beers, but while concurrently maintaining any adjunct flavors to the beer, such as vanilla bean, cherries, or other additives. Also, the barrel’s subtle flavors of oak and bourbon, whiskey, or port are infused into the beer; but not so much to overpower the base beer.
When done well, the barrel aged brew is the peak of the brewer’s art. This has led barrel aged beers to be a sought after commodity nationwide, resulting in beer enthusiast sites such as Beer Advocate hosting active trading forums where you can barter and trade for most any beer under the sun, but with most of the activity focused on barrel aged varieties, given their limited production levels and relative scarcity.
So, to barrel age, or not to barrel age, that is the question. In my opinion, there are more bad barrel-aged beers out there than good, so caveat emptor. But, that said, the good ones are worth the effort. And therein lies the dilemma – sometimes you just don’t know until you crack open a bottle of barrel aged beer if you have a winner or a drain pour.
Where to find these barrel-aged goodies? 18th Street in Hammond / Gary has a strong barrel aging program, and almost always seems to have one or two on tap. On a recent visit, the Hammond pub had barrel aged varieties of their flagship Hunter milk stout and Bear The Guard (in French Biere de Garde), a strong pale ale. Three Floyds in Hammond also has an extensive barrel aging process, but most of their barrel aged beers don’t hit widespread distribution, and for you to acquire a bottle may require that extra effort that I mentioned earlier – standing outside, in the rain and cold, at 4:00 am in the morning!
Good luck, and good hunting!