Craft beers possess a lot more flavor than their macro counterparts. Craft beers have a lot more flavor and the brewers love to experiment with them in a variety of ways. Barrel-aging has become one of the more popular ones in recent years.
Barrel-aging beers is not easy. Much more goes into it than just resting the beer in barrels for a length of time. The flavors of the beer and of the barrel must meld together nicely and is the most important factor of all. If a beer is not drinkable who cares about the expensive process used to brew it.
Brewers must have an understanding of the barrels. How they hold flavors from the liquids previously inside of them, what those flavors will impart into the beer, and how long to house the beer in the barrels for the desired effect are all important factors in barrel-aging a beer.
The beer styles chosen for aging are also important. While IPAs can be barrel-aged with great results, it is not a common one. IPAs are best fresh to enjoy the bright hop quality that many of us have come to know and love. If the beer is barrel-aged the hop flavor diminishes drastically.
Instead the most common beers that are barrel-aged are those brewed with the intention of having a longer shelf life such as Imperial stouts, Belgian quads or doppelbocks. These beers posses a strong backbone and will naturally age wonderfully due to their high ABV. The barrel-aging process adds a flavor depth to the beer and allows the beer’s natural aging flavor profile shine.
The other key in barrel-aging comes from balance. The beer should be front and center after the aging process. The subtle notes from the barrel should enhance the beer and not overshine any flavors. The important factor is balance, which is why lower ABV beers are not typically barrel-aged.
Lower ABV beers will quickly lose their balance when aged in a barrel. Lighter beers will be overtaken by the more robust alcohol flavors of bourbon or wine.
What are typical barrels used to age beer? Bourbon is the most common. Bourbon barrels offer a wonderful flavor depth perfect for stouts, barleywine and the like. The common flavors given off from the bourbon barrels are coconut, vanilla and oak. There is sometimes a touch of alcohol heat associated with bourbon barrels.
There is no shortage of barrels available for aging beers. Used barrels from wine, cognac, tequila and many others have been used. The real limit for brewers is the cost factor. The cost for attaining certain barrels will make the beer all but unaffordable for many drinkers.
While barrel-aged beers do typically have a higher than average price tag, they are still affordable to even the most casual craft beer drinker. Many barrel-aged beers have ABVs that range into the double digits.
Whether you are a fan of lighter beers, hop forward IPAs, or decadent and rich stouts, barrel-aged beers do offer something substantial and different. They are not beers to be taken lightly and should be enjoyed slowly.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.