To answer my own question, yes. Barrel-aged is “all the rage.” Even the most conservative breweries—by which I mean “not-very-inclined-to-start-experimenting-with-new-beer-menus breweries,” are starting to hop on the barrel train. Following the call of the “Barrel Herald,” if you will (no, you don’t have to).
Barrel-aged tend to leave most of the flavor in the backend of the beer. But it all depends, really, on the brew—and on the barrel. A natural oak barrel—one that hasn’t had anything specific aged in it—will give beer a woody backend. Plus, the time spent in the barrel allows the beer to develop certain flavors that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside. But no two barrels are made the same.
Bourb-On the Street Is…
A cursory peek into the world of barrel-aging beer will reveal, even to the most un-discerning observer, the popularity of aging in bourbon barrels. Bourbon barrels impart a unique, bourbon-y flavor on beers, which has been described as “figgy,” by those who know what “figgy” means, and a nose that is uncannily like a sniff of the sweet, Kentucky liquor.
The flavor of a bourbon barrel tends to come off pretty strong in a beer, so the brews therein will tend to be malty: beers that have enough flavor to compete with the figginess. If a one-way ticket to Flavortown is what you’re looking for, a bourbon barrel-aged beer may just satisfy your desire.
The world of barrel-aging is a lot like the wild west: there are no rules (and a lot of whiskey). Bourbon is probably the most common: syrupy and smelly as it is, it gives brewers a uniquely American way of kicking their beers into overdrive.
But all kinds of whiskey barrels make all kinds of whiskey-beers! Scotch barrels, for instance, tend to be peated, and thus yield peaty beers. Other whiskey barrels make other whiskey-tasting beers—usually less…noticeable…than their bourbon counterparts.
Beer, Barrels & BEYOND
Whiskey barrels are popular, but not exhaustive. They’re also not my favorite (not by a longshot). All kinds of wine barrels can be used for barrel-aging beer, too—which is good, because there are all kinds of wine barrels available. The two kinds of wine barrels that I see most used in aging beers are chard and cab.
Chardonnay barrels tend to give beers the butt-end of the chardonnay flavor: that dry-sour sting on your tongue. In fact, one of my favorite local breweries in Reno uses that characteristic sting to make sour beer. If you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s little worms in the barrels: like fraternity pledges, they eat the beer and then, also like pledges, they “spit” out acid that makes the beer sour. Sounds suspicious, tastes delicious!
Red wine barrels, like those from cabs or pinot noirs, give beer an unsurprising taste of wine. They also stick in your mouth like red wine is wont to do, leaving a layer of tart, fruity beerness with it.
So, are barrel-aged beers for you? Well, do you like beer? Do you like non-beer? If the answer to either was “no,” then I wouldn’t suggest it, and I wonder why you bothered reading this at all. If you answered “yes” to either, then I would suggest it. In general, if you like whatever the barrel originally had in it, you’ll like the flavors that it imparts in the beer.
If you haven’t hit up your local barrel-aging brewery, go ahead and do it: there’s something for everyone.