What was the newest style of beer you experimented with? Was it barrel aged? It wouldn’t surprise me if it was.
Before I get into things, let it be known that barrel aged beers have been around for a very, very long time. In fact, all beer up until the introduction of steel vats was stored in wooden barrels. It’s only just recently that breweries have been labeling them as “barrel aged.” This is because they’re aging them in barrels that have previously contained a spirit of some sort. The most common barrels used are Bourbon and Rum barrels.
This fairly new twist has finally established barrel aged beers as a “have to try” among beer enthusiasts. Their sales and demand has sky rocketed since Goose Island released the first documented barrel aged beer 22 years ago. Although most of these beers are either seasonal, limited edition or experimental, the trend has earned these unique beers a place in known styles.
With that said, the demand for barrel aged beers is high but the availability of the barrels are scarce. These are the reasons why:
- Each barrel can only be used once.
- 98% of these barrels are used by Scotch distilleries leaving 2% for the craft breweries to divide.
- Ideal temperature for aging is 67 degrees Fahrenheit
To illustrate the scarcity of these barrels, Goose Island alone requires 3000 bourbon barrels for a full batch of their barrel aged beer. That’s only 1 out of 3,464. I know that not every one of these breweries are putting efforts towards producing a barrel aged beer but a good majority of them are. If done right, a barrel aged beer does nothing but help the credentials of the brewery along with the resume of the brewer.
So how does the aging process work?
- Cold causes the barrels to contract which tighten the pores and traps flavors
- Heat expands the wood which in turn expands the pores and releases flavors
- Time provides the high alcohol content
To give you some insight to the flavors are produced and how, it is important to know the process before the beer is put in. Most of the time, oak barrels are charred before they are used. This creates most of the flavor and color. Charring the barrel infuses the sugars in the wood which is in turn responsible for the robust wooden and vanilla flavors. After charring and prepping the barrel, the beer is added and time is allocated. The ideal time to age is 1 year which ensures all the flavors are extracted and a well-balanced beer is produced, 1-2 months creates very strong vanilla and bourbon flavors but lacks the delicacy.
Whether your favorite brewery produces a barrel aged beer or not, it is definitely the Barrel Age.