The subt­le Alche­my of Barrel-Aging

Lot­te Peplow, the Bre­wers Association’s Ame­ri­can Craft Beer Ambassa­dor for Euro­pe, takes a deep dive into barrel-​aging in the Ame­ri­can craft bre­wing world

This artic­le is also available in Ger­man.

The prac­ti­ce of fer­men­ting beer in woo­den ves­sels has been around for hundreds of years but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Ame­ri­can craft bre­wers star­ted expe­ri­men­ting with aging beer in used spi­rits bar­rels. Today, barrel-​aged beer styl­es pro­du­ced by Ame­ri­can craft bre­wers regu­lar­ly win top hono­urs at pres­ti­gious inter­na­tio­nal beer com­pe­ti­ti­ons and is yet ano­ther exam­p­le of Ame­ri­can craft brewing’s relent­less inno­va­ti­on. Worth see­king out for their incre­di­ble com­ple­xi­ty, depth of fla­vour and subt­le nuan­ces of cha­rac­ter, barrel-​aged beers lend them­sel­ves per­fect­ly to the cold win­ter months.

A varie­ty of beer styl­es are sui­ta­ble for bar­rel aging in wood but sour beers and beers with high alco­ho­lic strength are the most com­mon. Bar­rels for sour or ‘wild’ beer may be used seve­ral times over while bar­rels that form­er­ly held spi­rits such as bour­bon, tequi­la or gin are rare­ly used bey­ond their first or second fill.

Many Ame­ri­can craft bre­wers con­sider bar­rels to be the fifth ingre­di­ent of beer and not sim­ply a sto­rage ves­sel. They source bar­rels with as much care and atten­ti­on as sel­ec­ting their annu­al hop varie­ties. Each bar­rel is uni­que which means expe­ri­men­ta­ti­on and fle­xi­bi­li­ty is an essen­ti­al part of the barrel-​aging process.

Most distil­le­ries or vint­ners will sell used bar­rels but bre­wers will go to gre­at lengths to secu­re the bar­rels they have in mind for a par­ti­cu­lar pro­ject. The Bruery, a craft bre­wery in Oran­ge Coun­ty, Cali­for­nia, buys bar­rels by the truck­load and sel­ects the exact bar­rels for each pro­ject depen­ding on the sen­so­ry ana­ly­sis of the bar­rel. Bre­wers from Gre­at Divi­de Bre­wing Co in Den­ver, Colo­ra­do have been known to tra­vel over­se­as (to Ire­land) to hand-​pick bar­rels for their part­ner pro­gram­me with Jame­son whis­ky while Eric Pon­ce, Bar­rel Pro­gram Mana­ger at Fires­tone Wal­ker Bre­wing Co in Paso Robles, Cali­for­nia has been sourcing dif­fe­rent types of spi­rit bar­rel from around the world for many years. “Every bar­rel needs to meet our requi­re­ments as in – the distil­lery we cho­se, how long the spi­rit was matu­red in bar­rel, bar­rels should not be rin­sed after emp­ty­ing etc,” he says.

Oak is full of fla­vour­so­me, aro­ma­tic com­pounds that can add ano­ther level of depth and com­ple­xi­ty to a beer, making it the pre­fer­red wood for barrel-​aging for many bre­wers. Jere­my Grin­key, Direc­tor of Pro­duc­tion, at The Bruery explains: “Oak is easy to work with com­pared to palm and other woods. It’s fair­ly com­mon across Euro­pe and has very tight grains len­ding to its liquid hol­ding pro­per­ties. Having said that, we’ve used Cher­ry and Aca­cia bar­rels too for fun.”

Equal­ly important to the fla­vour of the bar­rel is the art of blen­ding dif­fe­rent beer tog­e­ther to crea­te the desi­red result. A num­ber of base beers may be aging in dif­fe­rent bar­rels, some of which may be fresh bar­rels to give a high inten­si­ty of oak/​spirit fla­vour and others may have been used befo­re to give a lower inten­si­ty of fla­vour and it is the skilful blen­ding of the­se beers by the bre­wer that crea­tes the alche­my. Other fla­vours may be added along the way such as cocoa, coco­nut or cof­fee beans to add fur­ther levels of com­ple­xi­ty. Pon­ce at Fires­tone Wal­ker explains: “Blen­ding starts with the fla­vour of the bar­rel. If the bar­rel is not qua­li­ty and does not impart the fla­vours and aro­mas we are expec­ting that par­ti­cu­lar bar­rel will be dis­card­ed, but that pre­di­ca­ment doesn’t hap­pen often.”

So how much time should a beer spend aging in a bar­rel? The­re is no defi­ni­ti­ve ans­wer and it depends on when the beer is rea­dy. “It’s all about tas­te,” says Pon­ce. “We have a con­cept of how long depen­ding on the base beer and type of spi­rit bar­rel, plus we mea­su­re liquid from each bar­rel to get ana­ly­ti­cal and micro specs but over­all it’s about tas­te,” he adds. At the Bruery, sours age any­whe­re from six months to four years and stouts, bar­ley wine etc will age bet­ween 1–3 years. Some beers are ‘dou­ble barrel-​aged’ which means the beer has been moved into a fresh Bour­bon bar­rel after about a year for extra extraction.

Sim­ply lea­ving a beer in a bar­rel and hoping for the best is not going to cut it. Barrel-​aging pres­ents a num­ber of chal­lenges as Bryan Sle­kes, Seni­or Direc­tor of Finan­ce at Gre­at Divi­de ack­now­led­ges: “Time, con­sis­ten­cy and effi­ci­en­cy are the key chal­lenges in barrel-​aging. Beer often takes a year in the bar­rel befo­re we get what we want out of it, every bar­rel is dif­fe­rent and some­ti­mes indi­vi­du­al bar­rels don’t work out.” Grin­key at The Bruery adds: “Plan­ning and under­stan­ding the risk fac­tor is huge. It’s hard to know what some­thing will tas­te like in two years time, just becau­se beer is put in a bar­rel doesn’t always make it better.”

Barrel-​aged Ame­ri­can craft beers are available from sel­ect retail­ers in Germany.

About the author

Lot­te Peplow is the Ame­ri­can Craft Beer Ambassa­dor for Euro­pe for the Bre­wers Asso­cia­ti­on and is based in Lon­don, UK. She is a Cer­ti­fied Cice­ro­ne®, BDI accre­di­ted Beer Som­me­lier, beer wri­ter, beer com­mu­ni­ca­tor, inter­na­tio­nal beer judge, home­bre­wer and beer lover

About the Bre­wers Association

The Bre­wers Asso­cia­ti­on (BA) is the not-​for-​profit trade asso­cia­ti­on dedi­ca­ted to small and inde­pen­dent Ame­ri­can bre­wers, their beers and the com­mu­ni­ty of bre­wing enthu­si­asts. The BA repres­ents 5,000-plus U.S. bre­we­ries. The BA’s inde­pen­dent craft bre­wer seal is a wide­ly adopted sym­bol that dif­fe­ren­tia­tes beers by small and inde­pen­dent craft bre­wers. The BA orga­ni­zes events inclu­ding the World Beer Cup℠Gre­at Ame­ri­can Beer Fes­ti­val®Craft Bre­wers Con­fe­rence & Bre­w­Ex­po Ame­ri­ca®SAVOR℠: An Ame­ri­can Craft Beer & Food Expe­ri­enceHome­brew ConNatio­nal Home­brew Com­pe­ti­ti­on and Ame­ri­can Craft Beer Week®. The BA publishes The New Bre­wer® maga­zi­ne, and Bre­wers Publi­ca­ti­ons™ is the lar­gest publisher of bre­wing lite­ra­tu­re in the U.S.
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