Defining The Craft: What is a Barrel-Aged Beer?

Defining The Craft is a brief look at different beer styles that will help you learn whether they’re right for you. Ultimately, words can’t truly turn you on to a solid craft beer. You have to smell, taste, and savor each sip to truly discover if it’s one you’ll come back to in the future. But the background info obtained in this post won’t hurt anything either. In addition, Defining The Craft takes a glance at various elements of craft beer culture to further enhance your knowledge and know-how!

What is a Barrel-Aged Beer?

I’d like to start off this installment of Defining The Craft with a quote from comedian Jim Gaffigan: “Bacon is the best. To improve other food, they wrap it in bacon. I mean, if it weren’t for bacon, we wouldn’t even know what a water chestnut is.”

In a way, that’s kind of what barrel aging does to beer. Now, of course, beer is awesome on its own as we all have come to know and accept. But I’d like to shake the hand of the brewer who looked at an imperial stout one day and said, to quote Jim Gaffigan once again, “You know what would make this better? Booze!”

Barrel-Aging BeersA barrel-aged beer is any beer, either a traditional style or one brewed purely for experimentation, that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. Typically, these barrels once housed wine, rum, whiskey, bourbon, tequila, and other wines and spirits. The purpose of aging beer in these vessels is to impart the unique character of the wood…but more so the flavor of what has previously been in said barrel.

Brewers of today, always looking to go against the grain and put a new twist on one of their creations, use mostly oak to influence flavor and aromatics. If the beer is not aged in a barrel to give it the taste and smell of a particular booze, often times chips, spirals, or cubes of wood are added to the conditioning tanks that house the beer before packaging. In addition to oak, apple, alder, and hickory are utilized to give beers that unique woody taste, and the interior of the barrels are typically charred or toasted to enhance the flavor of the wood.

In today’s brewing world, equipment is metal. Copper and stainless steel make up any modern brewhouse, thus leading to easier sanitation practices, better product consistency, and the ability to control brewing processes. But back in the day and for centuries, wood was the only option. Beer was brewed, fermented, and transported in wooden barrels. While oak served as a durable and portable option, it was saddled with downsides such increased expense and laborious to create. Because of this, barrels were used multiple times. And since they’re difficult to clean due to oak’s porous texture, bacteria and wild yeast often reared their ugly heads and spoiled the beer. Thank goodness for revolutions, huh?

One of the most important elements to a great barrel-aged beer is time. If you are an impatient person, barrel-aging a beer is probably not going to be your cup of tea as the most rewarding product waits at the end of many months of hanging out inside the barrel. For example, one of the most popular barrel-aged beers is Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, or KBS if you’re into the whole brevity thing. This beer is an imperial stout brewed with an insane amount of coffee and chocolates. It’s base beer, Founders Breakfast Stout, is superb on its own. But KBS is cave-aged in oak bourbon barrels for an entire year. The end result? Words just don’t do it justice. Incredible undertones of bourbon hit you right in the schnoz and immediately own your soul.

Another example: Southern Tier Pumking. Many will argue this was the pumpkin beer that made pumpkin beers a thing. Last winter, they did a special, very limited release of Pumking aged in Spanish rum barrels. It was glorious! Read more about it here.

Barrel-aging has become one of the biggest rages in craft beer these days…and for very good reason. As consumer demand has grown, so has the curiosity of trying new, intriguing beer styles. A beer that was passed over as too “off the wall” only a couple years ago is now being flocked to in droves simply because craft beer enthusiasts have adopted a love affair with the unique.

Barrel-aged beers are typically part of big release events at your favorite craft beer destinations and, with a few exceptions, aren’t going to be found every day. When you see a local brewery or craft beer bar holding a barrel-aged release, make it a point to be part of it. Getting to try something of limited quantity that took over a year to reach your glass is truly special and well worth your time.




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