Barrel aged beer – three words that shiver my timbers! I still remember distinctly the first time I had Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer (now known as Innis & Gunn The Original). As befits a beer brewed in Scotland, it was matured in former whisky barrels. As soon as I poured the bottle my nose alerted me that this was like no ale I had ever experienced. Rich vanilla aromatics wafted from the glass and when I tasted it, there was more vanilla with toffee, marmalade, and whisky flavours. I was smitten. That beer enhanced my life, not just because it is a pleasure to drink, but because it is such a magnificent beer to pair with food. It’s no exaggeration to say that Innis & Gunn Original is the most versatile beer for food I know, equally fabulous with smoked salmon or goat’s cheese as it is with spicy Indian, or roast lamb. And it’s outstanding with desserts especially crème brûlée, brandy snaps, and treacle tart.
Convenience & Cost Banished Wooden Casks For Draught Beer
Humans have stored food and drink in wooden containers for millennia. Well into the 20th century oak casks were the norm for dispensing beer in pubs although they were usually treated with chemicals to minimize flavour seeping into the beer. In the past few decades, convenience, cost, and the sterility factor has all but banished wooden barrels for draught dispense in favour of steel. Some breweries such as Theakston’s with Old Peculier do still produce tiny volumes of cask ale in wood for the sake of tradition but overall it is a rarity to see in the 21st century. With cask ale, those beers are not actually aged in the oak barrel, it acts solely as the packaging material.
Compare that with wine, sherry, whisky, and rum, which are routinely matured in wood for months and years. Aroma and flavours impregnated in the barrel from the liquor it previously contained, or compounds such as vanillin from the wood itself are fundamental to the finished liquid and celebrated as premium characteristics.
Barrel Aging Romanticism
There is a romanticism about beer aged in wood because it embodies the soul of the tree. Just visit one of Belgium’s cathedrals of brewing such as Brouwerij Verhaeghe Vichte and spend some time weak-kneed in reverence next to the huge oak foeders in which the spectacular Duchesse de Bourgogne sits and mellows for up to 18 months. During that time the beer quietly consorts with wild microflora resident in the wood. They bestow the balsamic vinegary vinous tang typical of the style, and the oak bequeaths vanilla and tannins. What joy. Now imagine anyone rhapsodizing if the beer was matured in metal. No-one has ever swooned over stainless steel.
Not all barrel aged beers display flavours of wood, some taste of what lives in the wood which is the case with Belgium’s Gueuze, Oud Bruin and Flanders Red ale breweries, where microflora are the superstars that impart acidity and an indescribable complexity. For those who assume that all beer is bitter, tastes of malt, and has a foamy head then Belgium’s oak-aged brews do not actually look, smell or taste like beer. I often include one of those Belgian styles when I host cider and wine tasting tutorials for the group blind taste. Invariably after they sample it they refuse to believe it is beer.
Inspiration from Bourbon County Stout
In 1992 Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co became an early advocate for wood aging in the USA when it produced Bourbon County Stout, aged in bourbon casks. Because the beers tasted so good other brewers were inspired to start barrel aging programmes. Somerset’s Wild Beer Co devotes a whole warehouse to 600 barrels that formerly contained port, rum, red & white wine, sherry, bourbon, cider brandy, whisky, tequila, and cider brandy. Thornbridge is a prominent practitioner, and its Days of Creation, a sour red ale with raspberries and aged in burgundy barrels won a medal at the ultra-competitive and prestigious World Beer Cup in it first release.
Aging beer in wood is challenging due to the capriciousness of microflora, unseen faults in the barrel that can ruin the beer, and the march of bacteria that can transform the beer into something undrinkable. But the brewers who are willing to take the risk can expect complex flavours that are near impossible to achieve in stainless steel. Wood’s supernatural ability to elevate beer to another level is thrilling. Thank you Mother Nature!
Beer matured in wood is unpredictable and will not be hurried so breweries cannot commit to release dates of these beers because they are not the boss. Time is.
Jane is the author of The Philosophy of Beer, a concise history of beer. To buy a signed copy of the book please click here.
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