So have you ever wondered what barrel-aged beer is? You might say, well barrel aged beer is beer aged in barrels. And technically you’d be correct. No need to continue reading then….BUT WAIT, don’t you want to know why brewers utilize this fascinating technique? If so please read on and be amazed at the world of continuous wonder that permeates the brewing process, if you’ve had enough wonder and amazement for the day we understand, check out our podcast episodes instead.
The ancient Egyptians used clay amphorae, a tall jar with two handles and a narrow neck to transport wine over long distances. Eventually Ancient Greeks and especially Romans who at their peak traveled tremendous distances within the ever expanding empire, decided that amphorae were simply no longer suitable. Various types of wood was sought out to create a structure, which would become the barrel, in order to more appropriately transport wine. Oak soon became the wood of choice.
First, the wood was much softer and easier to bend into the traditional barrel shape than palm wood, thus the oak only needed minimal toasting and a barrel could be created much faster. Second, oak was abundant in the forests of continental Europe. And finally, oak, with its tight grain, offered a waterproof storage medium (vinepair.com). Oak also added a tasty flavoring element which helped enhance the wine.
Century’s later European brewers discovered that wooden barrels were just as ideal for beer as they were for wine; long distance travelling and enhancing the flavor spectrum. It wasn’t until 1992 that brewers started aging beer in bourbon barrels, thanks to the ingenuity of Greg Hall, former brew master of Goose Island Brewery in Chicago. Greg is widely credited as being the first American brewer to produce a bourbon-barrel-aged beer when he filled six oak barrels that previously contained bourbon. Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, which ferments in stainless steel vessels and ages for 100 days in Jim Beam bourbon barrels, remains one of the most sought-after barrel-aged (BA) beers today (hopculture.com).
This category, which also has some crossover with Specialty Beer, is at its basic definition beers that are aged in non-neutral wood. This can to produce an intentional wood-influenced flavor effect (vanillin, caramel, toast), or flavors derived from the alcohol previously aged in the wood if any (bourbon, scotch whisky, sherry), as well as the action of microorganisms living in the wood. A wide variety of base beer styles can benefit from barrel aging, although darker or more alcoholic styles have been popular choices.
Well there you have it, let us know in the comments below what you think and what some of your favorite barrel aged beers are.
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