When it comes to craft beer, brewers are always out to uncover the next great idea. It doesn’t take much online research to find out how they are bringing some of their wild ideas to life. One style, we believe, that will always be a staple in the craft industry is barrel-aged (BA) beer. In this 101, we’ll break down what barrel aging is and some of the styles of beer that are ideal for barrel aging.
Barrel aging beer is exactly what it sounds like. Whether you’re a home brewer or a craft brewer, you can take various styles of a base beer and place them in previously used liquor barrels. Some of the more popular barrels used are bourbon barrels, whiskey barrels, rum barrels, and as of recent, wine barrels.
When a distiller has emptied a barrel of liquor, a brewer may be able to purchase the barrel from them and use that barrel to age their beer in. The longer the base sits in the barrel, the more liquor character the beer will receive. Barrel aging beers really brings out the beauty in a beer by combining all of the flavors of the beer with the smoothness of the liquor. If you’ve ever consumed a base beer side by side with its barrel-aged version, you will likely agree that the BA version, most of the time, creates a smoother, more complex version of the original. BA beers are also higher in ABV (10%+), which makes them even more of a sipper. BA beers are the craft beer drinker’s version of a whiskey connoisseur’s nightcap in front of a blazing fire.
Although many brewers are barrel aging pretty much every style out there, there are a few styles that really stand out: stouts, porters, barleywines, strong ales, Belgian quads, and sometimes sours. We are adding sours to this, but that comes with a bit of explanation. Sours are great when barrel aged, but the BA sours that stand out are the ones that are fermented in oak barrels or wine barrels. The objective behind good sours are the tart and funk characters, and aging them in liquor usually weakens those characters. Aging them in oak barrels or wine barrels really keeps the funk in the style while adding a few additional character notes to it. Although it’s not usually a style we hunt down, we won’t say no to picking one up off the shelves from time to time.
Beers with fresh ingredients, such as Pale Ales, IPAs, and Wheat beers, are not good for barrel aging. Especially in the case of IPA’s, fresh hops should truly be enjoyed fresh. Letting those age, except in the case of a very high ABV IPA, will diminish the hoppiness and cheat you out of the full effect of their flavor.
Here is a list of some of the breweries that, we believe, have some of the best barrel aging programs in the biz:
So the next time you are out on a beer run, be sure to give some BA beers a try. It won’t take long before you’re hooked. BA beers are a bit more expensive, but trust us, you won’t regret it. If you’re a stout, barleywine, or porter fan, then we highly suggest dropping a few extra bucks on a BA version. You’ll understand what the hype is all about.