Photography by David Kiang
Besides being less prone to breakage, the wooden vessels could be rolled and stacked, and represented quite an improvement over the old way of clay. Heating staves of wood and bending them into shape can create a very tight waterproof seal, a trick likely borrowed from shipbuilders when barrels were first dreamt up. The heating took place over a direct flame, resulting in the barrel’s inner surface becoming toasted or even charred by the fire. For winemakers, this procedure introduced new elements of flavor while improving aging conditions. But in the realm of beer, this wasn’t considered desirable, and the insides of barrels were often coated with a pine resin called pitch, preventing the wood from actually interacting with the beer’s profile.
Distillers found that aging their spirits in the toasted oak would alter the liquor with not just the amber color of the barrel, but also impregnate it with mild hints of vanilla, coconut, and caramel. As the alcohol sat, it pulled these flavor compounds out of the wood as it soaked deeper into the barrel, and the spirit would also mellow over time, becoming less harsh as it developed added complexity. After extended aging, the liquor could be emptied, and the barrel could be reused or repurposed. Often, former bourbon and sherry barrels would make their way to Scotland to serve as a new home for the maturation of Scotch whisky. This happy life cycle would carry on for hundreds of years, but it wouldn’t be until the late 20th century that brewers would experiment with aging their suds in a used spirits barrel.
While some smaller instances may predate it, my research drew me to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout—originally released at their Chicago brewpub in 1992—as the first commercially available beer aged in a spirits barrel. Homebrewers in the area had reportedly invested in a used bourbon barrel and encouraged Goose Island’s then brewmaster Greg Hall to do the same. Around the same time, Hall was asked to participate in a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in South Bend, Indiana and he was fortuitously seated next to Booker Noe, a legendary master distiller at Jim Bean. By the end of the evening, Hall had talked Noe out of six bourbon barrels and set out to make a very special brew to commemorate the brewpub’s 1,000th batch of beer.
One of their frequent customers is The Bruery, located in Orange County. “We’ve got about 3,200 barrels currently filled with beer in our warehouse,” beams CEO Patrick Rue. “But there’s always another 100-500 empties waiting to be filled.”
McLaughlin estimates that about 95% of the barrels that he sells to breweries formerly housed bourbon. There are several reasons for this, but one main draw is the fact that they’re so readily accessible.
“By law, bourbon must be aged in new American oak,” explains Evan Price, brewmaster of Orange County’s Noble Ale Works. “So once the distillers have finished aging their bourbon, they can’t reuse them, but we certainly can.”
And so a busy aftermarket is created, with brewers (plus rum and Scotch whisky distillers) among the hungriest for used bourbon barrels. But beyond their ongoing healthy supply, they’re also in demand because the flavor of the bourbon and the barrel are extremely complementary to the notes often found in several beer styles, especially heavier dark beers such as porters and stouts.
It’s not just bourbon, though; other spirits do get in the mix. Rue takes a look around his facility: “We’ve also got some barrels that were used for rye whiskey, Scotch whisky, tequila, rum, and cognac.” (This doesn’t even take into account the “virgin” oak barrels and those that once held wine, Port, Sherry, or Madeira that are also on hand, but we’ll save those for a future article.) The main differences between all of them? “They carry a lot of the flavor from the original spirit with them, since a good amount of it is still soaked into the wood,” says Rue. “Rye whiskey barrels will give off a little telltale peppery spice… Scotch whisky barrels can lend some of that famous smoky Islay peat character… rum barrels can have tons of maple and brown sugar notes, and so on.”
The level of toast or char on the barrel also has a lot to do with the outcome. Toast levels offered are light, medium, medium plus, and heavy, and char levels are measured on a numerical scale from one to four, with four being the darkest. “The darker you go, the more vanilla, coffee, and burnt sugar flavors get imparted,” notes Rue. “In less toasted oak, you’ll find fruitier notes and a little bit of green character… kind of like pencil shavings.”
Bourbon barrels are always taken to a level four— or “alligator”—char, so named because of the crackled, leathered appearance the intense heat leaves on the staves. Noble’s Evan Price nails it when he describes the flavors that result after the bourbon has had its turn. “It’s almost like s’mores,” he pines. “The cocoa notes and the burnt sugar along with the toast and oak flavors remind me of chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers.”
While the concept is still relatively young, it's certainly come a long way. In 2002, when the Brewers Association introduced "Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beers" as its own style at the Great American Beer Festival. Today, it's one of the most popular genres, drawing stiff competition from over 200 entrants at last year's showdown. Funny to think considering that Bourbon County Stout was disqualified for not conforming to style when it was first entered to compete back in 1992.
- Beachwood Brewing System of a Stout
- FiftyFifty Eclipse Imperial Stout
- Port Brewing Old Viscosity (and its more mature version,Older Viscosity)
- Lost Abbey Deliverance
- Smog City Bourbon Red
- Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout
- The Bruery Black Tuesday
- TAPS Remy Imperial Stout
• Truckee-based FiftyFifty Brewing Co. releases several variations of their highly coveted Eclipse Imperial Stout each year, aged in a different bourbon distillers’ barrels. It’s great to try them side by side, should you ever get your hands on some.
• Firestone Walker Brewing Co. has recently opened their Barrelworks tasting room in Buellton. Barrelworks director Jeffers Richardson oversees the housing of countless experimental batches of beer from brewmaster (and Goose Island alum) Matt Brynildson. There are always several incredibly interesting beers on tap to try, and there is a bonus focus on education, with great informative hands-on displays that showcase what takes place inside the barrel and how they approach blending.
• The Bruery is organizing the first of what it envisions as an annual “Barrel-Aged Beer Day” on Friday, October 4. Join in the virtual toast by sharing one with friends at your home or at your favorite watering hole.