A Wee Bit About Barrel Ageing


It looks like 2017 is the year of the barrel, at least in beer terms. Don’t get us wrong, barrel ageing has been around for ages, but the practice seems to have gathered pace to such an extent over the last couple of years that now, almost every brewery seems to have released some new barrel aged stout, saison or berliner or at least a variant of an existing product that has spent some time at rest in oak. So what’s it all about? Why does the brewing world seem to be going all out for barrel aged beers? Here at Prohibition mansions we know a fair bit about beer, but the finer points of the brewing process, your brettanomyces v pediococcus arguments and the endless variables of temperature and time, while very interesting, go a little bit over our heads. Besides, there are blogs for that! We want to aim at our lovely consumers, to give you a short bit of history, a little opinion and not too taxing a read!

Storing food and drink in wooden barrels has been around for a very, very long time, at least 2000 years. Barrels replaced amphoras as a more sturdy and more portable (weird if you’ve ever tried to move a full barrel on your own) method of storing and moving liquid from one place to another. As it turns out oak, which was the early timber of choice for barrel makers (coopers) in the early days, remains a firm favourite with winemakers, distillers and brewers today.

The Belgian brewing tradition has for some time been using oak to ferment and age beer in a variety of different ways. The aim in general is to use ex wine Foedres, and rum, whisky or cognac casks either for secondary fermentation or long maturation of beer, in order to develop complexity of aroma and flavour, and to create depth. The Belgian opinion tends to be that time in oak is best suited to more robust, less hoppy beers where the characteristics of the oak won’t dominate. Take for instance the legendary Duchesse de Bourgogne from Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Flanders, it’s a blend of beer that has been allowed to sour over 18 months due to the introduction of various microorganisms to the Foedre and younger, sweeter beer having spent only six months in oak. The result is a hugely complex, vinious drop with huge balsamic complexity and sweetness. If you’ve not tasted it, we strongly recommend you do. Other Belgian styles heavily rely on wood for their character too. Lambic and Gueuze producers regarded time in oak as an essential component to the quality of their product. After cooling wort in coolships to harvest bacteria from the atmosphere, ageing in ‘breathable’ wood aids the multiplication of the microorganisms which develop the unique characters of these beers over time - up to three years - before undergoing another fermentation in the bottle. A time consuming process before any beer reaches market, but as any Lambic enthusiast will attest, drinking a suitably aged bottle of Cantillon or Oud Beersel can be a religious experience. 

The current ‘craze’ for barrel ageing can probably be traced to the resurgence in craft brewing in the US with a new creative spirit gaining traction through breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada who have both become household names. Through the groundbreaking work of those visionary brewers, the sky became the limit for those who followed, able to express themselves in ever more interesting ways. With that in mind, Greg Hall form Goose Island brewery in Chicago, decided in 1992 to experiment by putting some of his imperial stout in a bourbon barrel. What could possibly go wrong? What indeed, as that marked the birth of Goose Island Bourbon County stout. Now if you’re reading this blog with interest you’ll most likely know about or have tried Bourbon County, but suffice to say, many still regard its annual release as a bit of a benchmark for bourbon barrel imperial stouts, huge, viscous, caramel and vanilla, a little smoke, coffee and chocolate…. and lots and lots of Bourbon. We’ll not lie, it’s not for everyone, just most beer nuts. 

And the rest they say is history. The American brewing scene embraced Bourbon barrels wholeheartedly with a multitude of famous beers - the Great Divide Yeti series, Founders KBS, barrel aged Old Rasputin from North Coast being but a few. Of course, some of the more adventurous and enlightened American brewers branched out to experiment with wine, rum, sherry  and cognac barrels, names such as Russian River, the Lost Abbey, Jolly Pumpkin and latterly Jester King, taking things to a completely different level. These folks are at the very cutting edge of whats possible with mixed and spontaneous fermentation, always pushing the envelope of innovation and quality.

As with many other trends in the craft beer scene, barrel ageing has eventually reached Irish shores. We caught up with Declan Nixon, Head Brewer of Yellowbelly and Otterbank breweries and massive barrel enthusiast to ask what he thinks about the barrel aged beer ‘boom’. ‘I don’t think the use is getting out of hand. It seems to be the more adventurous brewers starting to experiment or introduce barrel programs into their breweries. As knowledge and techniques are shared and improved, the end product will only benefit.’

We asked Declan what barrel alchemy he was up to right now. ‘So you know our love of barrels extends to more than just chucking  stuff in and waiting a year. We've been experimenting a lot with different ageing times, fermenting in both sealed and open top barrels and ageing with different cultures in different barrel types over the last 2 and a half years. Every little change has a remarkable effect on the finished beer. That's why we adore using barrels. They can add so much more to a beer than just 'vanilla and oak'. Each barrel is its own wee ecosystem. It's the perfect mix of science, nature and luck.’

So for Declan, the future of brewing isn’t at all threatened by the explosion in the use of barrels at all. Regarding our question about whether or not some unscrupulous types would use the method to ramp up prices of otherwise substandard product he puts it simply. ‘The best way to deter crap breweries from putting crap beer into crap barrels is to not buy the beer.’

So our advice to you dear beer buying public, is that there’s a whole world of variety to be had from barrel aged beer. It doesn’t have smell like a stable or an attic, it doesn’t have to be 15%. There is genuinely something for everyone, so if you haven’t already, get out there and give some of them a go!

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