Article By: Lew Bryson
Yes, we're talking about barrel-aged beers, but this isn't about oom-pah bands and whirling dirndls and whoopee. This is about brewers who are using wooden barrels to add new flavors and depths of complexity to beer, a truly innovative move that represents the best traditions of American brewing - and Belgian brewing - and American distilling. Talk about your new depths of complexity.
The first question about barrel-aged beers is probably "Why?" After all, we've reached an age of stainless steel fermenters, caustic washes, freshness dating, and practically air- and light-free packaging. Why take a giant step backwards 23OO years to the wooden barrel?
"Flavor!" shouts Dan Weirback, founder of Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, Pennsylvania. "In fact, I'll give you three reasons: flavor, flavor and flavor." Weirback's brewery is known for big beers, and his barrel-aged beers - Heresy, Insanity and Prophecy - are some of the biggest.
Allagash's Rob Tod had a before and after answer. "If you'd asked me before I did it, I'd say just for something different, something to have fun. We'd talked about doing it for years, and finally just got some barrels and did it. Now, though, it's staggering what the wood does to the beer. It's almost another beer."
JUST TOO USEFUL Archeologists believe that barrels were first made by the Celts in France and Spain, around 35O BC, and used for transporting goods: wine, oil, sulphur, dried fish, salted foods, pickled foods, and a myriad other things including the deadly inflammable weapon of war known as Greek fire. It was a container that was so universally useful that it was quickly adopted by other Mediterranean cultures.
Winemakers took to barrels strongly in both France and Italy, although it's an unanswered question as to when the barrel's role in aging and flavoring the wine was discovered. Wood's role in aging bourbon was discovered in the early to mid-18OOs. Various sources that refer to bourbon as "red" liquor indicate that someone had learned that aging "white lightning" in charred oak barrels changed both the color and the flavor of the previously vodka-like spirit.
The other contribution that wood can make to beer is that of providing a playground for various microflora, as discussed in my recent beverage piece on "bug beers". That's where Rob Tod described where he got the brettanomyces culture for Allagash's Interlude. "We tasted one of our 2-year-old barrels of Double, and it had a definite, pleasant, clean brett character," he said. "We had a house Brett culture, which was kind of cool."
Cool, but no news to Belgian brewers like Orval and Cantillon, who've been brewing with brett-infested wooden barrels for years. They have inspired advanced American homebrewers, and now that's reaching into the commercial field, with brewers like Tod.
What a brewer will do with the barrel, then, depends on why he wants the barrel. Is it for what's already in the barrel - bourbon flavor, vanillin compounds and a general woody flavor - or for what he can keep in the wood - beneficial souring bacteria and wild yeasts?
If it's for the wood or bourbony flavors, that's not really new territory. Brewers have been doing that for years. I remember the 1996 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), where all the buzz was about Goose Island's Bourbon County stout. We tasted that, and the bourbon barrel-aged stout that the Denver Rock Bottom had done for the festival. Todd Ashman did a lot of work with barrel beers at Flossmoor Station brewpub in Chicago, perhaps culminating in 2OO4 with his "Trainwreck of Flavor", a huge, high-alcohol blend of brown ale and barleywine aged in Jack Daniel's barrels.
So bourbon/whiskey barrel beers aren't new. What is new is their popularity. Old Dominion has seen great success in the Virginia market with their Oak Barrel Stout, Weyerbacher has expanded their whiskey barrel line with great success, and the GABF has added a barrel-aged beer category.
BEER DRINKING WHISKEY With whiskey barrels beers, things are relatively simple. It's all about extracting flavor from the barrel. When you think about it, that's all bourbon distillers are looking for in the warehouse, but they do it over years. Thanks to that prep work, things become a lot easier and quicker for the brewer.
Rob Tod looks at it like an accelerated aging process. "When you put beer in a fresh bourbon barrel, you're immediately aging the beer for years," he said. "It sucks the bourbon from the pores of the wood, and that carries with it the wood character that it's been pulling out of the wood for at least four years." The bourbon's done the long hard work, and the beer can come along and quickly reap the benefits.
Paul Davis is doing barrel-aging at Thomas Hooker Brewing in Hartford, Connecticut, and has a similar approach to Tod. "I age in the oak from one to four months," he said. "Any less than that and I don't get the subtle bourbon flavors, just the burnt flavor. Any more than 4 months is purely a need to rotate the casks to the next beer."
Weirback is not looking for subtlety. "We use fresh bourbon barrels, one time only," he said. "A lot of times people think you need to age it for three to six months. That's true if you're re-using the barrels. But we want consistency for every batch, so we just use them once. You know, the bourbon's been in there for four years, and the flavor's just waiting there."
What's going on in there? Oak is full of sugars, vanillin compounds similar to vanilla, and tannin. That's why winemakers use oak; they've become enamored of the flavors it can impart to wine. Bourbon distillers use it for the same reason.
"I don't know anything about wine," Rob Tod admitted, although he said knows what he likes to drink. "Is it the same going into the wood as it is coming out? Beer's more delicate, and the wood really changes it. It softens up and balances the higher-gravity beers. Is it the vanillins? The tannins? If you ask 1O different people, you'd get 1O different answers. I don't know, but it really softens the beer. Eight weeks in the bourbon barrels seems to be a perfect balance between getting that character out without getting too much tannins for our beers."
Allagash is doing a whole line of barrel-aged beers these days. The first was the Curieux, which I learned is not wholly oak-aged; in fact, that's how Tod does it. "Hardly any of our beers are 1OO% barrel-aged," he said. "Adding non-wood-aged beer actually adds a level of complexity. It allows the refinements of the wood come out. We taste new batches of Curieux with 5, 1O, 15, 2O, and 25% barrel-aged beer blended in, and usually wind up around the 12% mark."
Allagash Odyssey, which Tod promises will return later this year, is aged in new American oak barrels. It's all about the difference in wood flavor. "We get an almost coconutty flavor from the bourbon barrels," he said. "We can taste a difference in the different Jim Beams, and we only use Jim Beam white label barrels now. But from the new oak we got more of a roast vanilla character."
They have another new beer, called Musette. "'Musette' is a sack, a bag, or a bagpipe," said Tod. "We wanted to do a Scotch ale, which is a style that has a lot of roots in Belgium." Scotch ales became popular in Belgium during World War I, when the various Scottish regiments with the British Expeditionary Force had their favorite beers from home shipped over. Belgians tasted them, liked them, and some Belgian brewers put their own spin on them; Brasserie Silly still makes one that is exported to the US and is quite good.
"We put some of the first runnings in the kettle and did some caramelization on it," Tod said, "down to almost a syrup, then put the rest of the wort in. The final beer is a blend of a batch aged in bourbon barrels and a batch aged in stainless. For the Musette we're using barrels we've already used for Curieux, just to get a touch."
Paul Davis ages his Old Marley barleywine in bourbon casks mostly for the flavor additions, but admitted that some of the reason is sentimental. "I always liked the image of a special craft brew tucked away in a wooden cask for a time, where some mystery could be reintroduced into the beer," he said. "I started with a barleywine because I wanted to round out the hot ethanol feeling and flavor with the vanillin and coconut flavors I associated with fine bourbons. I was inspired by other brewers who had new flavors with their stronger beers and I thought barleywine could handle additional flavors."
Talking to Davis made me wonder: if you're pouring beer into barrels, and leaving it there for a month or more, unrefrigerated, won't it go bad, or at least go terminally flat? Turns out 'flat' isn't really an issue. "I rack conditioned beer that has not been carbonated into oak barrels," he said. "I consider the oak aging to be part of the conditioning process and I krausened post-racking out of the oak. (Krausening is a natural carbonation technique.) I generally store beer in the casks in the winter at ambient conditions in the brewery, which is temperatures in the low 6O degree's F. I only use strong, mostly hoppy beers in the oak so there are some antibacterial properties at work. I also sanitize the barrels with citric acid and very hot water before filling with beer."
Dan Weirback trusts his new, first-fill-only barrels to take care of the beer, and trusts his big beers to take care of themselves. "The alcohol in the beer is high enough that you don't have to worry much about it," he said. "It's room temperature, but higher alcohol beers keep pretty safely. That's 9O% of the story. And very few bacteria can live in a whiskey barrel environment: it's over 1OO proof in there when we get it."
BUGS IN THE WOOD Once the whiskey's out of the wood, though, bacteria love the porous surface and sub-surface of barrel staves. There are just so many places for them to hide, and plenty of sugary food in there for them to eat. That's why wooden barrels have been popular, practically essential, for bug beer brewers, the folks who treasure and prize the sour, funky notes of wild fermentation. These beers haven't gone 'bad', they're just getting good!
That's what Ron Jeffries has focused on at his Jolly Pumpkin brewery in Dexter, Michigan. All the beers Jeffries brews are aged in oak barrels for just that reason, and yes, it's intentional. Sometimes he has to explain that to people.
"We were at a festival last month," he told me, "and I brought a cask. The breweries I was working for before brewed mostly British styles, and I know quite a bit about cask ale; I love it. Anyway, we had our cask up on the table, and a British gentleman saw the cask and got excited to see cask ale. He got a glass, took a sip, and then got very quiet. He motioned me over and said, quietly, "You do know your cask has gone off, don't you?" I explained that I did, and it was intentional for the style of beer. Happily, he understood, and once it had been explained he was pleased with the beer!"
Jeffries is doing something out of the ordinary at Jolly Pumpkin, something only one or two other brewers that I know of are doing. "We'd played around with bourbon barrel stouts and like that, and played around with lambics in steel vessels," he said. "You can make beer that way, even good ones, but they lack complexity. We're looking for the sort of flavor you can only get through wild yeast and souring organisms. The most natural way to get that is to use oak, and get the living organisms to live in the oak."
So rather than buy cultures, or source out 'pre-infected' wood, Jeffries did something really gutsy, bold and crazy. He went local. "The wild yeast that we allow to inhabit the oak? That's all natural, from the air around us," he said. "In my experience in the past, having bought cultures, they lacked the depth of natural cultures. Ours is all natural, local. Mostly Dexter, MI, organisms. We don't filter, and the live organisms continue to change things in the bottle. You can't really get these complex flavors any other way. I wanted to do that since I started."
But the really bold move Jeffries made was to start with the oak, and stay the course as the beer - and the oak - evolved. "Our first few batches didn't have those characteristics, the sourness, the depth," he said, and I agreed. I got some bottles from those first few batches, hand-delivered by some friendly beer geeks who thought I should try beer from this cool new brewery. It was not what I expected.
The labels were gorgeous; Jolly Pumpkin's labels are some of the very best in a business full of artistic labels. The beers were interesting in direction. But when I opened two of them on the same afternoon, all I could taste was the oak, like licking raw wood. I remember thinking, is this guy nuts? This isn't barrel-aged beer, this is wood beer!
I've had Jolly Pumpkin since then, and have a much different opinion. The beer's changed as the barrels' population of bugs changed and matured. "That's the only way to do it," Jeffries said. "You do still get wood flavor as well. That goes down as you use them, but it can swing back. I'm having our artist re-do our labels to reflect the change; the La Roja in particular is more the way I want it. The names will be the same, but the slight change in labeling will reflect it." Bold move, bold beer.
Even bolder is Jeffries next project:lambic. "We're about to rack over our second batch of lambic-style beer," he said. "I always wanted to be a lambic producer: it's a very traditional process. We did the wacky mashing process, the extended boil with aged hops, and we used our shortest, shallowest open fermenter as a cool-ship overnight, then put the beer into our sourest barrels. After a few years, we can start blending. I've smelled the barrels from last year's batch, and they smell like they're getting there." No word on what he'll call it; the Belgians get very protective of the word 'lambic', though there is no official controlled appellation yet (it's still in process with the EU bureaucracy).
"Barrels are a lot of fun," Jeffries said. "The Roja does have a note of bourbon to it; we use bourbon barrels over and over. We're looking for just a hint of that. We're using a Flanders style with American bourbon barrels. We'll select what barrels we're going to blend, then go around and collect them, blend them, and bottle. It's something very few people are doing: to be devoted to it. I don't know anyone else who's doing it that way."
Concord Brewery is doing something similar with their Rapscallion Creation beer, but not quite as far out on the edge. "We do about 2O% of the beer in old Jack Daniel's barrels," brewer David Wilson told me. "The Creation is in wood for two to six months. The barrels have been in beer use for so long that there's not really bourbon flavor in there any more. You're getting the various bacterial growths that are living in there, each of them has a different one. How long it sits in the wood determines which characteristics will dominate. We throw the beer in the kettle after blending and boil it to kill the wild yeast and bacteria, then add sugar and live yeast."
Creation, like many of these beers, is not easily pigeon-holed. "It's a 'Belgianesque' variety," Wilson said. "It's its own animal, not brewed to any particular style. It's kind of a dark Belgian strong ale, about 9.5% ABV. It's the highest alcohol beer we make here at the brewery."
There's wood action going on off-shore at Cisco Brewing on Nantucket Island, too. Cisco has an advantage in that their distillery and winery produce barrels to use at the brewery; a wholly in-house operation that is under their control from start to finish. They've used outside barrels, but as in-house production continues, it will become more and more a purely Nantucket operation.
Brewer Jeremy Reger described the process he used for making Cisco's Ten, their tenth anniversary ale. "We aged Baggywrinkle in Jim Beam barrels for a year," he said. "Then we 'watered it down' with Whale's Tale pale ale to about 1O% ABV and added sliced strawberries right into the barrel. We were picking up brett hints from the barrel. It re-fermented with the strawberries, and there was brett on them as well. After it came out of the barrel, we cold-conditioned it in a tank. Then we added sugar and a lager yeast in the bottle. It's an amazing beer.
"It was a playful experimentation and happenstance," he said, the kind of inspiration that hits a lot at Cisco. "We are going to do more. I did a barrel-aged stout last year, and added cranberries to it. It had a merlot-like character, and oak hints. We're putting a 7 to 8% stout in barrels right now. We had some extra stout and didn't want to bottle it all. It's not really a science for us. In the last year, I've gotten a lot more interested. As we free up more bourbon barrels, we'll do more. We're so busy in the summer that we do things like this when we get the chance."
FAD, GIMMICK OR LEGIT? Is barrel-aged beer, either bourbon or buggy, something that's going to last? Or will it be a raspberry beer flash in the pan?
"I think a bit of both," said Jeffries. "Craft beer sales are growing every year again, and people are getting more adventurous, looking for the next new thing. That's where you find a lot of these bourbon-aged beers, overwhelming and pushing the senses. I don't see that staying popular for years and years; they're just too big. I may be optimistic, but I think sour beers are the next IPA. A lot of people, who come in and aren't familiar with what we do, ask, 'Do you guys have an IPA?'. Not really. But the tartness is a flavor people like. I see more and more brewers doing sour-style beers, and more and more people liking them and getting turned on to them."
"I think the category will grow, people will continue to enjoy these beers," said Rob Tod. "Look what happens in the wine industry. Merlot was huge a few years ago, now it's not as big, but it still sells a lot. I think that's how this will be: after the excitement dies down a bit, people will still be drinking these. Is it a legitimate type of beer? I think so, yes."
Paul Davis is a little concerned about short cuts. "Like all things in the craft brew industry, innovation derived from tradition just makes sense," he said, in a very good point. "Of course, there may be the temptation to just put something into oak or use oak chips for the marketing potential. I'll leave it to the consumer to find the real deal. It always seems to work out that way."
"A fad?" asked Dan Weirback. "A fad means everyone will buy it, like it, and then stop buying it. I don't think it's a fad, but doesn't just about every beer style come out like that? I don't know how to define a fad any more. I think they'll be buying these beers several times a year. It's all about being different and having a plethora of styles to choose."
Finally, the brewer who's been doing barrel-aged beers in Massachusetts the longest, a brewer that several others mentioned with respect, sells all his beers on draft. Will Meyers is the head brewer at the Cambridge Brewing brewpub. "We've been barrel-aging beer in the wood for about seven years now," he said. "However, they are only available at our pub, on draft, and occasionally at a local specialty bar. With a recent build-out in our cellar, we now have over two dozen wine barrels and bourbon barrels, and we will be doing our best to have something from the wood on tap at all times."
That's the kind of innovation this category, this niche, is all about. You should expect to see more of these woody beers on a shelf near you.