The old song “Roll out the Barrels” (will have a barrel of fun), actually refers to beer barrels! Barrel-Aged beers are beers that are stored in barrels after they are finished fermenting. Although some are stored in new barrels, many aged in barrels that something else has been aged in, such a bourbon. This way, the beer picks up some of the flavor from what used to be inside the barrels. Putting beer into barrels, and, essentially, cask aging them is not a new practice by any stretch. Before we had stainless steel or aluminum storage systems, or kegs, or even bottles, the only way to store beer was in barrels.
Beer was fermented, aged, transported, and served from wooden barrels, usually oak. Aging beer in barrels in beers does not always work out so well. The barrels themselves might impart undesirable flavors to the beer, or certain yeasts would grow on the wood itself and ruin the taste of the beer. Plus, there was really no way to keep microorganisms from contaminating the brew. Remember, beer doesn’t have the alcohol content of whiskey, so it is much more subject to spoilage. Although not everyone minded it, for most, a sour beer ruined in the barrel was a great waste. Some more enterprising brewers would line the inside of the barrels with pitch or resin, so that the beer didn’t touch the porous wood. When stainless steel and aluminum became available, wooden barrels became obsolete, but the beer and whiskey industry never stopped using them..
Today, however, barrel aging beer is back. And it is just as risky as ever. Only the highest alcohol beers are suitable, for the most part. Even so, oxygen can get into the barrel, causing oxidation and creating chemical reactions that change the taste. some of the alcohol may evaporate, creating the “angel’s share” just like in whiskey aging. However, nowadays, barrels used to age bourbon or other whiskeys are used, so that the flavors of the liquors can help flavor the beer. Also, it is possible that the remnants of the liquor, which are absorbed into the porous wood, can bump up the alcohol content in the beer, at least a bit. Some brewers have even used wine barrels, and other materials such as cedar or chestnut, instead of oak.
Whatever is used, barrel aging beer is a huge gamble. There just is no way to be sure how it will turn out, and an entire batch could easily be wasted. As well, since different barrels cause different flavors, and once barrels are used, the flavors from bourbon or other alcohols a dulled, the brewer might have to mix different barrels to get just the right mix and taste. This makes barrel-aged beers very costly and time-consuming to make, involving a lot of trial and error; and experimentation. Once a brewer get’s it right, though, a barrel-aged beer can change your perspective on beer forever. They are strong and complex, often with a marked bourbon taste. Possible, as well, is a bit of smoke.
Here are some notable barrel-aged brews, and I’ve kept this list to beers that are available year round, as, there is no use of me telling you about beers that are no longer made, only made in minute quantities, etc. These beers you may be able to find outside of eBay, and then, you can drink them rather than horde them like a treasure! However, there are a great many other barrel-aged offers that are available certain times of the year, such as the spring or winter. If you have a really good liquor store in your area, you may be able to get them to order you some. I’ve left out barrel-aged beers that are basically spoiled funk-fests which the brewer then tells you only the sophisticated can appreciate.
But, before we get to that, we have to dispense with some confusing terminology. I want to make sure that if you are seeking a barrel-aged beer, you get the real deal.
Barrel-Aged Versus Wood-Aged Beer
As you read this, you might be thinking, “wait, Budweiser is beechwood aged! Why are you acting like this is a new thing?” See, there is a difference between barrel-aged and wood-aged. Barrel-aged, of course, means aged inside barrels. And, if a beer is barrel aged, the label will probably say so. After all, it is a big deal to do and a point of pride. The label might even say what type of barrels (probably will say), and even if it is blended from different barrels, etc. You don’t go through the trouble of barrel aging a beer and then say nothing about it!
Wood-aged beer, on the other hand, is not aged in barrels! It is aged in metal vats like most modern beers, but some wood is added to the beer. In other words, pieces of wood are put into the vats with the beer, so that the wood can add a bit of its flavor to the beer, etc. So, for Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch puts planks of beechwood into the aging vessel, which, according to the company, “enhances the fermentation creating a crisper, more sparkling carbonation while imparting smoothness to the characteristic taste of Budweiser.” They claim the wood doesn’t impart any actual wood flavor to the beer. Makes no sense to me, but, in any case, don’t confuse it with barrel-aged. Now, here are some awesome barrel-aged beers:
Palo Santo Marron by Dogfish Head Brewing Company
trDogfish Head of Milton, Delaware, makes a number of popular craft beers, and their barrel-aged Palo Santo Marron is offered year-round. It is an unfiltered brown ale that is aged in 10,000 gallon barrels made from Palo Santo wood, which has been used in South American to make wine. Palo Santo Marron has a very high alcohol content, at 12% ABV. It is a highly roasted, sweet malt and smoky flavor, and is just a little fruity tasting.
Allagash Curieux by Allagash Brewing Company
Allagash Curieux was the Allagash Brewing Company’s first barrel aged beer. This Belgian-style Tripel* ale is aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels for eight weeks. The brewer than blends the aged ale with some fresh Tripel to come up with touch of coconut and a vanilla, and a hint of bourbon. Some of the wood comes through as well, and a nice spice. This dark golden ale is smooth and delicious, but strong at 11% ABV. Available year-round, it’s my favorite on this list!
* Tripel ale is is a name given to certain high-alcohol Belgian Trappist Beers or Abbey Ales which were first brewed in monastaries, and which use a confusing system to categorize their beers. The term tripel means “triple” in Flemish, and refers to the strength of the beer, and tripels are stronger than blondes or dubbels. However, they are not actually all that dark and, as I’ve indicated above, although are nicely flavorful and complex, with a enough bitter to balance the sweet, they don’t taste as if they have as much alocohol as they do, being suprisingly smooth. So, be careful, these can sneak up on you!
La Folie Sour Brown Ale from New Belgium
La Folie Sour Brown Ale from New Belgium is not called sour because it has a slightly sour taste. This beer is tart! I mean, seriously sour, but I have to agree with the brewer that it is “sour in a good way.” Says New Belgium, “This Flanders-style reddish brown ale delivers plenty of green apple, cherry, sometimes even blackberry and chocolate notes. It’s the beer that launched our sour beer program in ’97.”
The beer is aged one to three years in French oak barrels known as foeders. It is tasted every three months and then different barrels are blended to get the perfect taste. It has a dark red bronze or mahogany color which is just a bit hazy. The first sip with pucker your mouth with a sour cherry and green apple, it has a dry fruity taste with some sweet caramel maltiness and a green apple finish. You also get some of the woody tastes and bit of peppery citrus. It is lower in alcohol than the previous selections, at 7% ABV.
Schlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout by The Saint Louis Brewery
chlafly Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout is a dark American ale aged in bourbon barrels. It has the dark chocolate flavor you’d expect, plus a good bitter hit of hops and the vanilla booze and spice you’d expect from the bourbon. It’s creamy and warming, with raisins and coconut and the bourbon shining through. Although it boasts 10.5% ABV, you probably wouldn’t realize it. Most drinkers note that it seems oxidized, which, as I noted above, is to be expected in a barrel-aged beer. Usually, this means beer that has gone off or is punky, but here, it works. The brewer says it will continue to age well in a cook dark place for several years.
There are a great many great barrel aged beers that have seasonal availability, or rotating availability. Although these may be harder to come by, and you may have to wait, many of them will be well worth it. A thread on the BeerAdvocate community board has a great list from the members.