As if beer and barrels weren’t already synonymous, brewers are increasingly reinventing the role barrels play in brewing. Barrel-aged beers have captured a loyal audience that is growing in its appreciation and numbers every year.
In turn, craft brewers large and small continue to expand production capability to reward the enthusiasm. By seeking out barrels used in aging bourbon, whiskey, tequila, rum and wine, brewers continue to find new and irresistible flavor components. They’re also creating new and varied beers to put into those barrels.
Barley wines and imperial stouts have been the traditional base beers, but now you can find fruit beers, wheat beers and a variety of sour beers that are barrel-aged.
Wisconsin has played its part in this evolution.
I featured Tom Griffin last summer, detailing his cross-country road show hauling bourbon barrels to one craft brewery at a time. His Griffin Barrel enterprise is based in Evansville just south of Madison. During an earlier career, he recalls flying into Louisville, Ky., and seeing used bourbon barrels stacked 60 courses high like pyramids.
Those barrels are still made with quarter sawn American white oak aged for 1½ to 1¾ years. The insides are charred with flame to create sugar development in the wood, which adds flavor and color to bourbon. Seven different chemicals perceived as vanilla emerge from the wood, ranging from orange, cherry, currant and plum, which are imparted into the bourbon, according to Griffin. American bourbon is distinguished by only one single use of those barrels. That’s the law.
Griffin remembers supplying barrels to Goose Island Brewing for their first barrel-aged beers many years ago before InBev purchased them. They would put the same beer into different barrels for the same length of time, aged at the same temperatures in identical conditions. They tasted from 50 different barrels and they found eight or nine substantially different flavors that a non-educated taster could taste. “This is the same beer guys. Taste it. Wow,” he remembers.
Quality barrels, once destined to become planters, are in big demand and command prices hovering around $200 each from choice distilleries. For many years, only serious devotees of barrel-aged beers were able to find them by attending sold-out special release parties hosted by the breweries that created them and the supply was gone.
Investments have been made and increased output is evident by browsing local store shelves. The prices are high because a lot of time and ingredients have been put into these beers. They’re also very strong, so a little goes a long way.
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minn. Cerberus, the hound of Hades who guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving, might make you wonder what you’re in for. Darkness, a Russian Imperial Stout aged in rye whiskey barrels, won the gold medal among a field of 131 barrel-aged strong stouts at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival.
There were a total of 420 entries in four different barrel-aged categories, compared to a total of 87 beers in two barrel-aged categories 10 years earlier. This trend is likely to continue and perhaps go places yet to be determined.
Tasting notes: Ruby red hues around the edges of a very black beer. Dark ripe fruit aromas with whiskey accents — subtle but there. Incredibly bold dark malt with complexities from the vanilla barrel character, which really complements the Imperial Stout style very well. Gold Medal status is evident.
Central Waters Brewing Company, Amherst, Wis., in collaboration with The Local Option, Chicago. Central Waters’ barrel-aged beers have earned a national reputation and this is a fine example of their work. This weizenbock’s name is Dutch for The Little Death. Malt and mortality in a bottle.
Tasting notes: Dark ruby red and clear. Dark fruity wheat aromas — very malty. Spiciness of weizenbock style complements the subtle bourbon barrel character nicely.
Founders Brewing Company, Grand Rapids, Mich. The attractive label says it best. “We took a crisp, light-bodied cherry ale and hid it away in oak barrels that have held both bourbon and maple syrup, it emerged a changed beer.”
Tasting notes: Candy-like ripe cherry aroma with light bourbon accent. Pours brilliant clear pale red. Spritzy mouthfeel. Sweet cherry flavor with a hint of maple and bourbon. Dry, woody, warming finish. Really tasty and unique among any other cherry beer.
New Holland Brewing, Holland, Mich. This is one of five versions of New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk stout aged in bourbon barrels. Michigan raspberries and lemon zest were added into the barrel and this leads to a surprisingly good result.
Tasting notes: Chocolaty bourbon aromas appetizing and bold. Raspberries sandwiched in between roasted malts and bourbon booziness. Lemon zest provides a tart finish which really emerges as the beer warms up.