Letting beer rest in wine or spirits barrels awakens a new set of flavors.
Since the 1980s, craft breweries — small, privately owned producers of handcrafted beer, sometimes called microbreweries — have been on the rise. Then came the turn of the century and the new millennium. Suddenly craft beer was everywhere, as the number of craft breweries skyrocketed from a little more than 500 in the early ’90s to more than 2,000 in 2012. On the trail of this cascade of popularity came craft distilling, following the same model as the humble breweries and currently experiencing its own boom exemplified by the likes of Firestone & Robertson, Garrison Brothers, and High West.
Along the way, the twain met, creating a beer style so diverse its characteristics can vary from the peat moss and tobacco flavor profile of Schlafly Single Malt Scottish Ale to the vanilla and dark fruits of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Winter Warmer from Fort Worth, Texas-based Rahr & Sons Brewing Company.
It took a thirst for experimentation for brewers to find the sweet spot between bourbon and beer. “It’s about how the various types of wood used in barrels and the liquids they previously contained provide so many different, new, and unique flavor characteristics to barrel-aged beer — opening up even more styles of beer and expanding on existing styles of beer,” says Fritz Rahr, founder and president of Rahr & Sons.
Why combine two great tastes? “Curiosity,” says Steve Gonzales, research and small-batch manager for Stone Brewing Co. “We wanted to see what would happen! We tasted some beers aged in barrels that we thought were pretty amazing, and we thought, Why not try it?” And then there’s the patriotic mystique. “When we taste something that has been barrel-aged, we’re getting a lot of the same flavors that our ancestors tasted,” Gonzales says. “Bourbon is as American as it gets and part of our heritage.”
Rahr and Stone weren’t the first barrel-aging pioneers, though. That honor goes to Chicago’s Goose Island, which marked the thousandth barrel in 1992 by pouring a stout into Jim Beam barrels to create Bourbon County Stout.
Since then, breweries like Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, have taken the trend further with offerings like Interlude, a mild Belgian-style farmhouse ale that has spent time in wine barrels. Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin, Texas, noted for its devil-may-care attitude toward yeast, has barreled beers to create in-demand gems like the rowdy imperial oatmeal stout Whiskey Barrel Rodeo, the smooth farmhouse ale Boxer’s Revenge, and the mouth-puckering RU-55, a sour red ale.
Other notable choices include Twisted Pine Brewing Company’s Reilly’s Oak Whiskey Red, aged in Buffalo Trace barrels; Stone Brewing Co.’s 2010 Stone Imperial Russian Stout Aged in Bourbon Barrels; as well as Kickin Chicken Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine from Santa Fe Brewing Co. But those are just a drop in the bucket — craft breweries from Florida to Oregon are releasing barrel-aged beers.
It’s the best of both worlds: When you can’t decide between the vanilla tease of a blended whiskey and the malty punch of your favorite ale, the only way to go is with a barrel-aged beer.
From the May/June 2013 issue.