Songs from the wood

The story behind barrel-aged beers

By Jim Witmer

Photo: Yellow Springs Brewery owner Nate Cornett handpicks barrels for his product; photo: Jim Witmer

It seems everywhere you look for a beer, there is a barrel-aged option. While it was more of a rarity just a few years ago, barrel-aged beers have now become the new frontier in creating exciting new flavors and aromas in the brewing arts.

But what does it mean to make a barrel-aged beer? Essentially, it’s taking wooden barrels that have been used to hold spirits and reusing them to hold beer, infusing the brew with the flavors of the previous barrel resident.

Once barrels that contained spirits such as bourbon, rum, rye whiskey, gin, brandy, cognac, wine and even maple syrup are finished with their first life, craft breweries scramble to get their hands on the old barrels because they know their customers will also scramble to buy the wood-aged product at premium prices.

Since bourbon barrels can only be made of American oak and used once, they traditionally have been shipped from Kentucky to Scotland for aging scotch. However, with the sharp rise of craft brewing in the U.S., the competition and cost for such barrels has created an entirely new market. Enter the barrel brokers who buy large quantities from big distilleries like Buffalo Trace, who don’t have time to deal with small individual breweries anymore, and resell them at a hefty mark-up in the $150 range. So small breweries find their wood through relationships with small distilleries. Yellow Springs Brewery (YSB) owner Nate Cornett drives to the Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia to handpick barrels still wet with the residue of spirits.

Barrel-aging has a long history, as brewers originally fermented beer in oak casks. Today, they use stainless steel then transfer into barrels for a period of additional aging. Not so with the local Carillon Brewery, which works with the 1870s method of fermenting completely in oak barrels.

“Our barrels are used as vessels for fermenting and conditioning the brews until it is time to serve them. Due to the porous nature of the wooden barrels, we get a unique profile in our brews that you don’t usually find in brews coming from stainless steel vessels, ” Carillon brewmaster Tanya Brock says.

Of course any beer can be drained into a barrel after it has undergone primary fermentation, but generally malty, higher alcohol beers such as imperial stouts, dubbels, barleywines or strong ales with the big-time flavors fare the best so that they can complement, and not be overpowered by, the spirits. For example, Warped Wing Brewing Company (WWBC) has a regular program of bourbon barrel aging: a hefty, malty, chocolaty, 11.5 percent Russian imperial stout named Whiskey Rebellion, even canning it last November during a special release with limited availability. There are exceptions to the rule of aging—only malty beers, of course—with a fine example being YSB’s Captain Stardust, a refreshing, fruity saison that has been aged in gin barrels for a funky harmony of flavors of peach, apple, vanilla and oak that drinks way too easily.

WWBC brewmaster John Haggerty has been involved in barrel aging since 2002. “Barrel-aging is an expensive proposition, but the results are worth it,” he says. “People seem to really respond to wood-aged beers. I think this is because they inherently understand that the process is much more nuanced and time consuming. We taste each barrel, lots of blending, lots of touch points on each release of beer.”

Miamisburg’s Lucky Star owner/brewmaster Glen Perrine stands out from others in the area by acquiring tequila barrels for aging his Mexican lager Ojos Locos, keeping with the Mexican cantina theme of the brewery. The flavors he said, married well with the clean character of the lager without extensive contact time needed to impart flavors and aromas described as “citrus with a definite bite and a real good nose, kind of in the style of a tequila lime beer.”

To find the barrels Perrine had to negotiate with a broker who eventually found acceptable ones but it was “difficult and expensive.” The used tequila barrels have now found another life as re purposed tables inside the Cantina.

Another aspect of creativity is the souring of beer within a barrel (usually one that contained wine) with the microorganisms that are hidden within. Sometimes, the addition of yeasts and bacteria such as Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus provide layers of aroma and tart flavors described as earthy, horse blanket and barnyard (this writer’s favorite description is “a wet dog in a phone booth”). Probably the best examples come from Belgian breweries, which have been doing this for generations, with the finest examples being the likes of Rodenbach and Cantillon. However, American brewers have made incredible strides to advance the category.

Funny how things have changed around here. A generation ago, the bacteria that caused such souring would have been a nightmare. The beer would be headed for the drain.

It’s a whole new flavor profile for most beer drinkers, but it is keeping the craft beer geeks interested beyond the latest IPA.

From a brewer’s standpoint, what will actually be the outcome of the flavors is part science, part mystery. A blending of different barrels to achieve the most palatable product is what usually occurs, an art form to be sure. It’s always a gamble, and sometimes the science experiments just have to be dumped down the drain because it isn’t amazing. Or palatable.

Both WWBC and YSB have admitted they had to get rid of a few ales that didn’t meet their standards from barrel-aging. “We know what we like and what we don’t,” Cornett says. “It’s all sensory evaluation, and you have to really keep on top of it. We just let it go too long, and it was not up to our standards.”

Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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