Cask and Tell: Why Are Barrel-Aged Beers Showing Up on So Many Menus?
Europeans have been putting beer in wooden vessels for hundreds of years. Before industrialization, beer was fermented in wood, stored and shipped in wood, and poured directly from wood. Beer spoiled often. Life was hard.
By the mid-20th century, most breweries had happily traded their temperamental wooden barrels for the reliability and convenience of metal tanks. But traditional breweries, like many of Belgium’s lambic sour ale producers, have continued using primitive methods through today. Why? They understand how kind wood can be to beer that’s treated properly, and they are far from alone.
Brewers have long known that wood-aging can add flavor and depth to beer. But in the early 1990s, when Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing Company concocted its first Bourbon County Stout, the practice took an intoxicating turn. After three months inside used bourbon distillery barrels, the brew had a complex oak character from the wood and rich flavors from lingering whiskey—characteristics that made the Bourbon County Stout an instant hit.
Putting beer in bourbon and other whiskey casks opened the door to a host of wood-aging options. Stouts and porters most often get the treatment, but today brewers chuck Belgian tripels, barleywines, IPAs—whatever styles of beer stoke their imagination—in wine, brandy, tequila, even maple syrup barrels for anywhere from a few weeks to several years. The results are rarely disappointing: A boozed-up barrel can be like Viagra for beer.
The drawbacks? A tendency toward the upper range of the alcohol scale means drinkers are sometimes required to use restraint or suffer the consequences. Also, wood-aged beers can be expensive. The price of the barrels, and the time the beer spends in them rather than being sold immediately, means it costs more to produce these brews. No two barrels are exactly alike and beer often behaves differently in them. Predicting when a batch will be ready is tricky. It’s also difficult to make barrel-aged beers with consistency, and often requires blending beer aged in different barrels.
Fortunately for D.C. drinkers, many brewers, including several local ones, have shown skill with a variety of wood-aging techniques. And the three District breweries slated to open later this year—Atlas Brew Works, Bluejacket, and Right Proper—have big plans for using wood from day 1.
It hardly sounds enticing, but some of the most refreshing beers come from this type of wood-aging. Whether in raw or previously used barrels, the microbe-bearing walls of these bug farms expose their contents to yeast and bacteria that can impart tart, dry, or earthy qualities. Nathan Zeender, the brewer behind Shaw’s forthcoming Right Proper brewpub, will have up to 40 on-site wood vessels churning with his own cultures. Some will be used for Solera-inspired aging, where beer is taken from a barrel and fresh beer is added back at different times, creating a line of unique but continuous brews.
Try: Cantillon Brewery’s Kriek, Jolly Pumpkin’s Oro de Calabaza, Cascade’s Apricot Ale, DC Brau’s Penn Quarter Porter aged in fourth-use Catoctin Creek Rye whiskey barrels (no release date scheduled yet)
The American oak often used to age bourbon adds vanilla flavors. Any remaining alcohol in the barrel can contribute coconut and burnt sugar notes as well as boozy warmth. Time in a bourbon cask often increases a beer’s intensity but can also tame the sharpness of a strong, hearty beer. Many wood-aged brews are mixed with unaged beer before kegging or bottling to make the conditioned beer more palatable. One example: 3 Stars Brewing Company’s Born Sinner—the brewery’s Southern Belle Imperial brown ale, aged eight months in Maker’s Mark bourbon barrels and then blended with fresh Pandemic Porter.
Try: Allagash’s Curieux, District Chophouse’s Bourbon Stout, DC Brau’s The Corruption IPA aged in Willett bourbon barrels (coming in mid-August)
Scotch and other Whiskey
Most of these wood-aged brews have hints of vanilla or toffee with plenty of alcoholic heat. Lightly charred barrels might add a toasty character, while highly charred barrels or those from the Scottish island of Islay’s peat-fire distilleries, give beer an intense roast and smoke character. The barrel program at Bluejacket, opening in Navy Yard next month, will start with 60 barrels and show a wide-ranging but targeted approach to wood-aging. Beverage director Greg Engert says he plans to focus on getting casks from the smaller producers he already has relationships with, such as West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler and Washington state’s Dry Fly distilleries. He and brewer Megan Parisi will brew beers especially for particular barrels and use wood to put special spins on previously released beers.
Try: Flying Dog Brewery’s Barrel-Aged Gonzo Imperial Porter, DC Brau’s Barrel-Aged Penn Quarter Porter, Chocolate City Beer’s Mister Mayor, 3 Stars’ Pandemic Porter in James E. Pepper 1776 Rye whiskey barrels (coming in the fall)
Wine barrels induce fruit flavors and usually make a beer’s mouthfeel more vinous and dry. Barrels made of French oak, as opposed to American, create a subtler character in beer, often spicy and tannic. One of 3 Stars’ newest releases, Harvester of Sorrow, is the brewery’s Peppercorn Saison aged in used Cabernet barrels for eight months and then blended with fresh base saison. Atlas Brew Works, set to open in Ivy City in September, recently acquired 13 French oak red wine barrels from Virginia’s Boxwood Winery, in which they plan to age a Belgian-style ale this fall for release next spring. Co-founders Will Durgin and Justin Cox are going so far as getting a branding iron to scorch the brewery’s name into their barrels.
Try: Victory’s White Monkey, Mad Fox Brewing Company’s Reynard Black Saison in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, DC Brau and The Red Hen’s Dorsia red wine barrel-aged porter (coming in September)
Fortified and Distilled Wines
Barrels used with fortified wines like port and sherry or distilled wines like brandy and cognac give beers a sweet, highly alcoholic character. DC Brau head brewer Jeff Hancock has used fruit brandy barrels from Virginia’s Catoctin Creek Distillery to give a kick to beers like his Ghoul’s Night Out Belgian quadruple and Middle Name Danger blonde saison, a collaboration with Stillwater Artisanal Ales.
Try: J.W. Lees’ Harvest Ale (Calvados), Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (Cognac Edition), Heavy Seas’ Holy Sheet
Brewers have recently begun experimenting with a broader range of spirits like tequila, rum, and gin. Mikkeller, a gypsy brewing project based in Denmark, matured its Black Hole Imperial Stout in seven different types of liquor barrels to show how they can change a beer’s character. Something local to look forward to: Right Proper’s Zeender is getting his own gin barrel. He will reclaim a Laird’s apple brandy barrel he gave to New Columbia Distillers to mature the D.C. gin maker’s first aged spirit for his own purposes this fall.
Try: Mikkeller’s Black Hole (various) or Mexas Ranger (Tequila Edition), Avery Brewing Company’s The Czar (Rum barrel aged)
On the wackier side, Michigan’s Founders Brewing Company has been putting its Imperial Breakfast Stout in spent bourbon barrels used to age maple syrup since 2009. DC Brau tested out the same method last fall on their Stone of Arbroath Scotch Ale and recently acquired a new Langdon Wood maple syrup barrel for a future project. If you can barrel it, you can barrel-age with it.
Try: Founders’ CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout), Founders’ Curmudgeon’s Better Half, Lawson’s Maple Barrel Aged Fayston Imperial Stout
Photo of DC Brau barrels by Darrow Montgomery