Barrel-Aged Beer Steps into the Spotlight

It was a busy afternoon at the Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. Patrons were shoulder to shoulder enjoying pints and having raucous conversations. All the tables were crowded, and the barstools were long filled. There was not much respite for those without a seat. Looking around the room offered few options, but before anyone got the idea that some functional bits of décor could offer a place to relax, a sign taped to the barrel head dispelled any such notions.

“Please do NOT touch, lean on or stack belongings on barrels! They must rest in peace,” it read.

The barrels in the cozy Decorah, Iowa-based taproom are not just for aesthetics but are also used to age all manner of beers that would soon be packaged and served. In the meantime, outside interference is frowned upon.

Among the 9,000 breweries in the United States, it’s safe to assume that the majority have a barrel program. These can range from the modest—a half dozen or fewer—to the massive: thousands stored in climate-controlled warehouses that are kept out of public view.

Stainless steel is the preferred medium for lager and ale fermentation, but brewers have a fascination and appreciation for wood and have been embracing it amid this modern renaissance. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of honoring the barrels as an ingredient that can be used to accentuate inherent flavors and add complementary flavors to the beer, as well as utilizing barrels to contribute complexity and balance with a goal to enhance drinkability,” says Eric Schmidt of Amalgam Brewing in Colorado.

Revolution Brewing Aging beer barrels
Barrels at Pulpit Rock Brewing Company’s taproom / Photo Courtesy of Revolution Brewing

Why Wood?

After clay pots, wood was the next vessel used historically for fermenting and aging beer. Stainless steel has been the preferred modern method thanks to its ease of cleaning, ability to keep out unwanted microbes and to hold pressure.

However, wood never fully went out of fashion. Plenty of Old World breweries continued to use barrels to age beers, and the newer breweries that popped up over the last four decades also started experimenting from time to time.

In the late 1990s, a new category of beers began to appear on shelves. Big, boozy imperial stouts that spent time in bourbon and other whiskey barrels quickly began to capture stomachs and minds.

“One iteration [of a barrel-aged beer] creates another iteration or inspires thoughts or conversations among more and more brewers,” says Dave Colt of Sun King Brewing. “I think it’s just a natural progression of things.”

Chicago is the center of the barrel-aged bullseye and remains a vibrant hub for the style today. It was nearly 30 years ago that Goose Island, then an independent brewery, released its first Bourbon County Brand Stout, a strong dark ale that spent time in freshly dumped bourbon barrels.

The brewery, now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, still releases the beer—along with a half dozen other variants—each year on the day after Thanksgiving. It has become an event that other breweries have copied with their own interpretations around the country.

“I think having it start at Goose all those years ago, we’ve been exposed to it longer and more directly than most. It’s been in supermarkets for a long time,” says Marty Scott, who runs the expansive barrel program at Revolution Brewing. “We like drinking big, and there are a lot of brewers who worked at Goose who left and took that experience with them, whether they left town or not, and now there are a lot of breweries big and small who are working with barrels.

Sun King Brewing
Stacked Sun King Brewing Bottles / Photo Courtesy of Alexander Rodgers Sun King Brewery and Spirits

The New Style

The style has grown in popularity. There are now categories specifically for wood and barrel-aged beers at international beer competitions, and there is even a festival dedicated to the beers held annually in Chicago.

A niche industry has popped up that links distilleries and wineries of all sizes with brewers looking to buy discarded barrels, and relationships have formed between the industries with barrels sometimes being passed back and forth. The growth of barrel-aged beers has also meant that brewers are not just waiting for holidays, anniversaries and special occasions to release these decadent brews.

Many brewers will focus on porter, stout and barleywine or other “clean” beers for barrel programs, while others have embraced “wild” or sour programs that allow mixed culture fermented beer to sit in wood creating vibrant, rustic and acidic brews.

From Mexican lagers in tequila barrels to saison in wine barrels, nearly every style of beer in the modern age has received a barrel treatment at one point or another. Imperial stouts, because of the style’s hearty nature and flavors and aromas of malt-derived chocolate and coffee, still seem to be the ale of choice for regular barrel-aging. When it comes to barrel-aged stouts, whiskey barrels are still the top choice among brewers and drinkers. This is thanks to the single-use barrels that come with bourbon production, and it means that there are often both familiar names and everyday brown liquor barrels available. Any good barrel-aged stout needs to start off as a solid base recipe. A barrel, even one that still boasts big flavor, cannot successfully hide all flaws in a poorly made beer. Brewers need to focus on their craft first.

“You will not improve a beer by putting it in a barrel,” says Scott, who notes that he never finished the first barrel-aged stout he was served back in 2008. “A base beer is going to get oxidized by a barrel, there is going to be absorption, evaporation and concentration. It is going into the barrel still and warm for a prolonged period of time. Treating a beer and having it come out the other end tasting good takes a lot of work.”

Proper blending is also important. Unless a brewery has a single barrel, the final beer that is packaged will pull from numerous barrels, being carefully tasted and evaluated on its own merits and then combined with others to create a harmoniously finished product.

Walking among the wood cellars at breweries, invited guests will notice various markings on barrel heads. Sometimes the names stand out, like Pappy Van Winkle or Weller or Maker’s Mark. Those get well-deserved oohs and aahs, and when the finished beer has been blended, carbonated and packaged, those barrel provenances are displayed on menus and labels and can command princely sums.

But brewers point out that the quality of the bourbon or the brand name often plays a minor role in the finished beer. “I call them good story barrels,” says Scott.

Amalgam Brewing
Close-up of Amalgam Brewing’s Wax Seals / Photo Courtesy of Gray Box Studios

Beer to Share

For a long while these big boozy barrel-aged beers were in large format packaging, notably 22-ounce glass bottles nicknamed “bombers.” The idea was that these special-release beers, which usually push past 10% abv, would be opened on special occasions and shared among friends or fellow enthusiasts at bottle shares.

They were also adorned with special labels, marked with a vintage or release year and often topped with a theatrical flourish. Fremont Brewing in Seattle, for example, regularly deploys volunteers and workers to hand-dip 22-ounce bottles into wax to both further seal and add an aesthetic finish to its multitude of barrel-aged products, à la Maker’s Mark. Smaller breweries will often call on employees to do the same on their packaging runs using wax melted in crock pots.

As barrel programs have evolved and the style becomes more common, some brewers have abandoned the bomber bottles in favor of more traditional 12-ounce (and even some 8-ounce cans) packaging. This has led to barrel-aged beers being sold in four or six packs and can even be perfect for a weeknight or non-special occasion. Sun King Brewing, headquartered in Indianapolis, which boasts a robust barrel program that has won numerous awards, has taken to packaging its wood offerings in twist off topped cans.

The ubiquity of the style has also led some brewers to decrease the abv into more sessionable offerings or begin to use neutral wood to really let the tannins and natural flavors, not just spirits, seep into the beer.

Much in the same way the beer takes time to emerge from wood, drinkers tend to spend a bit more time savoring pours from barrel-aged beers.

“A lot of the allure is digging around in the beer to connect with unique and complex flavors that aren’t always inherent in the base beer itself,” says Schmidt. I really think that being able to form connections to other flavors and experiences is one of the joys of drinking beer. There’s so much to discover when drinking a barrel-aged beer. It’s like reading the liner notes of an album, with the barrels, time, location, temperature, blending, etc. all being departure points for future exploration and understanding.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!