Bigger is better!

Chicago festival takes barrel aging to the next level

By Kevin J. Gray

Aging beer in wooden barrels is a recent trend that marks a return to a nearly forgotten brewing method. Before the stainless steel kegs of the 1950s, most brewers stored beer in wooden casks. By the late 20th century, this practice had nearly died out before craft brewers resurrected the practice, giving it a new twist.

American craft brewers in the 1990s and early 2000s began to discover that aging beers in spent spirit barrels added complex and interesting flavors. Beer geeks agreed, and as a result, in the last decade, the industry has seen an explosion in the number of breweries barrel aging beers.

Local brewer Jeff Fortney, who brewed for regional breweries Wooden Shoe and Rivertown, explained that there are several reasons a brewer might choose to age a beer in wood: “to impact the flavor of the base beer in some desirable way, to create a special, limited, desirable (read: more expensive) beer or both.”

Flavor can change in several ways. First, the flavor of the oak itself can change a beer. As Fortney explained, “oak imparts different woody, earthy, sometimes vanilla and/or tannic perceptions. The degree to which the oak barrel is toasted on the inside will also play a part in determining the flavor impact.” Beers also pick up the flavors of those products aged previously in the barrels, be it the hot flavors of a bourbon, the smoky peat of a scotch or the sweet, caramel flavors from a dark rum. Finally, wild yeasts and bacteria used in farmhouse and sour beers like the porous surfaces of the wood.

Over the course of the last decade, one Midwestern beer festival has been devoted entirely to showcasing beers aged in wood. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (or FOBAB), held annually at the beginning of November in Chicago and sponsored by the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

This year’s FOBAB included 173 barrel aged beers from 60 breweries in 25 states. But this is no ordinary beer festival. What makes FOBAB unique is the breadth of truly unique beers available. The breweries go all out, often producing one-off concoctions specifically brewed for the festival. Some beers may only exist at FOBAB, while others may be barrel-aged versions of popular commercial beers.

FOBAB beers are organized into ten categories:

-Classic Porter/Stout These are dark beers of average strength, with colorful names like Firestone Walker’s Velvet Merkin or Flat 12’s Cow Tipper Milk Stout.

-Strong Porter/Stout These beers are a bit stronger than the first category, and the base beers themselves tend to be top shelf, highly sought after beers. Oskar Blues Wild Turkey Ten Fidy fits here, as does Ohio favorite Barrel-Aged BORIS Imperial Stout from Hoppin’ Frog.

-Barleywine/Wheatwine Here come the big guns – big, boozy base beers soaking in the spirits’ flavors. These beers are deceptively delicious and require pacing. The Barrel Aged Behemoth from Three Floyds was this writer’s pick.

-Classic Styles In contrast to the monsters in the previous category, these are smaller beers, all below 7 percent ABV. These beers are tricky to brew because the oak can be overpowering in the wrong hands. Just the name of Jester King’s Commercial Suicide Oaked Farmhouse Mild attests to the difficulties of this category.

-Strong/Double/Imperial Pale Beer  Hopheads, all of your crazy-ass super-hopped industrial strength IPAs fit here. Stone’s OAKED Arrogant Bastard is a beer most folks will recognize. Moylan’s Wet Hospickle XXXIPA 2012 is lesser known, but no less amazing.

-Strong/Double/Imperial Dark Beer This is the catch-all category for dark beers that don’t fit in above. Lots of Belgian quads and Scotch Ales in this camp. Pappy Van Muckle (Sun King) and Extra Naughty Scot (Rock Bottom Chicago) were fun picks.

-Fruit Beer Take a base beer from one of the categories above, drop some fruit in it and stick it in a barrel. Apricot au Poivre Saison from Nebraska Brewing blends oak, fruit and pepper flavors. Kentucky Cherry Bomb by Sun King was a Belgian Quad with cherries aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels.

-Experimental Beer This is the kitchen-sink category, where the names of the beers are as strange as some of the combinations. Sex Syrup (Rock Bottom Chicago) combined bacon, maple syrup and coffee beans in an Oatmeal Stout. It may be better to just not know what was in Fitch Brewing’s Dirty Sanchez.

-Wild Beer/Brett There’s no delicate way to describe the funky, barnyard flavor that the wild yeast Brettanomyces imparts in beers – these beers literally smell like ass, yet beer geeks love them. Popular choices were Flossmoor Station’s .357 Brett and Against the Grain’s Golden Shower.

-Wild Beer/Acidic Whereas Brett brings the funk, bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus make beers sour. Sour is the new hoppy, so this part of the tasting was packed. Bear Republic’s Tartare was the sourest, but St. Dekkera Reserve Sour Hawaii Ale (Destihl) was a pineapple-flooded close second. Bring the Tums for these beers.

For serious beer geeks, FOBAB is a must. But get your tickets early – the two sessions (afternoon and evening) sold out in record time this year, despite a larger venue and more available tickets. Mark your calendars now and start watching the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild ( website in late spring/early summer for details.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at

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