Why Brewers Are Having Barrels Of Fun
There are many ways to impart flavour into beer. Firstly, there are the four main ingredients of beer that can affect flavour, those being: barley, hops, water and yeast. Brewers also commonly use additives to further flavour their beers such as fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. Something that has become increasingly popular in North America but that has been going on in brewing in some facet for the entire history of the beverage is barrel aging beers.
Barrel-aging beers is on the rise but is something that requires space, time and investment. Barrels are not cheap. Beer needs time in the barrel for it to impart any flavour, (anywhere between a couple months to a few years.) Barrels take up a lot of valuable tank space in a brewery and you will usually see them stacked upon each other as high as the brewery's ceiling will allow.
Why Barrel Age?
Most barrels of the world are made of oak. Oak is the best option for coopers to make barrels as it is the most easily shaped wood. It also has a great natural balance of both holding liquid and imparting flavour with its porosity. There are many countries that produce oak for barrels but the two most common are American oak and French oak and they have different characteristics and flavours that come with them. American oak is more porous and imparts more flavour in a shorter time than French. Common American oak flavours are vanilla, coconut, butterscotch and cedar. French oak barrels have tighter pores and will have a softer profile in the beer because of it. French oak lends flavours of vanilla, warming spices like nutmeg, and toasted almonds. Both barrel types need to be heated to be shaped and will have one of many degrees of toast ranging from light toast to charred.
Brewers will also commonly purchase used barrels from distilleries or wineries. When they buy these used barrels the character of what once resided in them is still there. Examples of barrels being used around Nova Scotia are Bourbon, Calvados, Cognac, Vermouth, Port, Amaro, Tequila, Red Wine and White Wine. This allows a brewery to produce beers with layers of flavour. Flavour from their base beer, flavour from oak, flavour from the wine or spirit last in the barrel and any other additives they want in it. These beers take a lot of time but the final product is layered and complex. Certainly worth the extra few dollars you will have to spend.
An example would be 2 Crows Brewing's "Terry," a sour beer that they aged in ex-Tequila Barrels and conditioned on local Blueberries. The result? A beer with layers of complexity, the base beer offering great acidity and malt flavours, the barrel offering both oak notes and earthy tequila notes, and the blueberries adding colour, flavour and juiciness.
One more reason why breweries will barrel age their beers is because they are using souring organisms such as bacterias and wild yeasts. These "bugs" live in the wood and will continue both souring and fermenting the beers. A lot of acidic Belgian beer styles spend time in barrels like Flanders Red, Oud Bruin, Lambic and Gueuze. These barrel-aged sours have much more complexity than the kettle sours that filled Halifax tap lists this summer due to having multiple souring agents like Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and lactobacillus. The kettle sours only use one, that being Lactobacillus.
What Beers Can You Barrel-Age?
High-alcohol dark beers are safe options for brewers to barrel age as they are less likely to spoil and go stale quickly through oxidation. Very common barrel aged styles are Imperial Stouts and Barleywines, both styles are 8+% ABV and are commonly aged in bourbon, cognac or port barrels as the flavour profiles of the beers and the previously spirit-filled barrels match well.
Golden beers that use Brettanomyces which is the scientific name for wild yeast also work well with barrel aging. Brettanomyces will make itself at home in the barrel and the slow leak of oxygen through the oak will feed the Brett while it takes it time adding earthy funk to the beer as well as drying it out more than regular brewers yeast can. Many wild brewers have found their own combination of wild yeast strains that they call their "house" culture giving their beers a signature funk unique to that brewery.
As mentioned previously, many Belgian beer styles use oak aging and most are golden-amber in colour. The main link is that they will normally use mixed fermentation meaning both yeast and bacteria to ferment the beer. Beer styles like Saison, Flanders Red and broader termed sour beer and farmhouse ales are excellent in new oak, red/white wine, gin, or tequila barrels. Brewers will even sometimes blend multiple barrels of different ages to achieve the perfectly balanced beer.
For Sour Fans: 2 Crows Brewing's barrel-aged series. Literally any bottle in their fridge is worthy of a purchase. A couple recent favourites would be "Terry" that I mentioned earlier and "Hoopla" another from their Tequila barrel that was aged on coffee beans. Both available at their brewery on Brunswick St or online here!
For Farmhouse fans: Stillwell Brewing's niche is to blend Farmhouse Ales that have been barrel-aged for a range of different times as well as different barrels. Their beer "Glou" was a blend of many diverse barrels of aged beer re-fermented on NY Muscat grape skins and is one of my all-time favourites from them. Grab it at their Barrington St Bar or on their new webshop!
For Dark Beer Fans: Big Spruce's "Ra Ra Rasputin" Russian Imperial Stout has been a favourite of mine for a couple of years now. They offer an array of barrel-aged versions of this beer but the favourite is still the Glenora whisky barrel-aged version which took home a silver medal this year at the ACBA's.