Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
May 30, 2017 - Barrel-Aged Beer
If you stopped by the Saltbox Brewery in the past month, you will have noticed their novel release of Fog Bank, an amped up version of their lovely Old Foundry Stout, aged for five months in an old oak rum barrel. The result was a smooth, mellow stout with deeper tones of dark fruit and vanilla and a pleasing alcohol warmth at around 9% ABV.
Barrel-aged beers are becoming quite popular these days and they offer up a nice collectible for beer enthusiasts everywhere. The aging process adds a level of complexity to a beer; alcohol levels mature, taking on a muted quality while the malt flavours come forward and meld into other aspects of flavour gleaned from the nature of the wooden cask.
Historically, the wooden barrel was a standard container for storage and shipping of just about any liquid – wine, beer, rum, olive oil – they all traversed land and sea in wooden barrels. However, there was no particular intention to have the wood impart its own flavour on the liquids stored inside them. Specifically in the beer industry, which is generally obsessed with sterility, brewers worked hard to avoid wood flavours in their beer. They would fill their barrels with successive soakings of boiling water and hydrochloric acid to remove wood flavour. This laborious process was part of the impetus to transition to stainless steel tanks, which were more cost-effective to keep clean.
Fast-forward to 1992 and the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. An American brewer named Greg Hall from the Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago decided to produce a bourbon-barrel-aged beer by filling six oak barrels that had previously contained Jim Beam. He offered up this experimental brew at the Festival and in doing so launched an entirely new genre of beer. It now seems as if executing a barrel-aged beer is becoming a “right of passage” for aspiring brewers to master.
Many people say that brewing beer is as much art as it is science. And while I think of wine makers as talented gardeners – they must prune, tend and select their grapes carefully - wine itself is fairly simple to produce. The juice goes into a barrel and the natural yeast on the grape skins kick-starts the fermentation process. Then it’s a long wait to see how the wine turns out. If it turns out poorly, well shucks, it must have been a bad year for grapes. The brew master, on the other hand, is like a Chef in a master kitchen. They are faced with multiple ingredients from which to create a brew; at a minimum they require yeast, malted grain, water, and hops. And the variety of each of these ingredients can result in a dizzying combination that influences the outcome. Rather than being like wine - a part of nature nurtured, beer is a product of intention and imagination.
When moving into the realm of barrel-aged beers, the Brewer sacrifices some of his stricter controls over his “kitchen” for the reward of exciting, sometimes unanticipated results. The wooden barrel is no longer a mere container, but another influencer on the flavour and aroma of the beer. Oak is usually the wood of choice, but other woods can be used – chestnut, ash, acacia, even eucalyptus. The qualities that influence the end-product are as follows:
• Wood flavours: each distillery uses its own brand of wood and often char the inside of the barrels. This leads to distinct differences in the sorts of flavours derived from the wood. Additionally, “lactones” (chemical organic compounds in the wood) can often offer up herbaceous notes. Additional polymers in the wood’s structure can lend flavours such as vanilla, almond, caramel or burnt sugar.
• Previous Inhabitants: these are the flavours of whatever beverage resided in the barrel prior to arriving at the brew house. Rum, whiskey, etc. can soak up to an inch into the wood and can subsequently be slowly extracted into the beer during the aging process, contributing higher alcohol flavours.
• Oxygen: because wood is porous, oxygen will slowly make its way into the cask. Normally an enemy of beer, when properly controlled oxygen can impart pleasant flavours, softening hop bitterness and allowing malt flavours to come forward. The two can marry into complex sherry-like notes.
• Diverse Microflora: the wood harbours wild yeasts and bacterial strains that can add “funky” flavours to the beer ranging from “floral” and “earthy” to “horse-blanket” or “barnyard”. It’s anybody’s guess how these will play out, which makes anticipation of the final product that much more exciting.
So, now you know that wine and spirits aren’t the only beverages that can benefit from aging in wood. The rich flavours of stout are well-suited to absorb the complex additions offered up by rum or bourbon barrels.
However, other beers are also transformed into something more delicious through this aging process. Generally these are beers that hover around double digit ABVs (e.g. barley wines, strong English or Farmhouse ales) or ales that have been “bottle-conditioned” (i.e, a bit of additional yeast is added to the bottle before it is sealed). The universal rule is: don’t age an IPA or hop-heavy beer…the alpha acids in the hops tend to deteriorate too quickly to benefit from aging. Start to explore the wonders of a cellared beer, and pop one open for a special occasion. It’s just another way to experience the diverse journey offered by the art of a well-crafted beer.
Watch for more barrel aged speciality beers coming from Saltbox in the near future!