It took a couple hundred years, but beer is finally moving up in the world of barrel aging. Hoppy, more potent India pale ales acquired some woody balance from the oak barrels on long voyages. And to get that infusion of vanilla and lumber, home brewers have been tossing sanitized oak chips in their fermenters for years.
But as craft distilling took off—with pedestrian styles like pilsners, brown ales and porters being given the imperial treatment and seeing their alcohol content leap into double digits—it wasn’t long before brewers sought a new place to park their mighty ales to get aged and infused.
“Every one is different,” said Matt Thrall, head brewer at Avery Brewing, as he looked up at the wall of full white oak barrels that reach nearly to the ceiling in the temperature and humidity controlled aging room.
The beers that go in the barrels—which originally held everything from Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey to Goslings Rum to Zinfandel wine—are typically high gravity beers because Thrall says the higher alcohol is up to the task of leaching out the delicious vanilla and molasses and smoky flavors and aromas that a Char Number 4 will impart (Char Number 4 refers to the most extreme heat used to burn freshly coopered oak barrels before they get filled with raw whiskey, rum and the like).
The fad of aging high gravity beers in used spirits barrels has officially graduated from fad to craze. Thrall is going great guns and Jake Norris, head distiller at Stranahan’s, located at 200 South Kalamath Street in Denver, says demand for his barrels—they only get used once for his whiskey—far outstrips his supply.
“Great Divide would love to have tons of them,” Norris said, referring to the barrel-aged versions of Hibernation Ale, Old Ruffian Barley Wine and Yeti Imperial Stout.
Finding such rich, barrel-aged brews in bottles is not as rare as it once was, but be prepared to put a dent in your wallet for them. Not only are they aged from 6 months to 18 months or longer, but the barrels themselves cost $85, Norris said.
Because of the one-off aspect to most of the barrel-aged beers, some of the more interesting, delicious and rare versions are often only found in a brewery’s tap room. Local examples include Left Hand’s exquisite Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout and Avery’s Rumpkin, both barrel-aged—the former in Heaven Hill Brandy barrels, the latter in rum barrels. The Rumpkin is nowhere close to the cliché pumpkin ale that finds its way to tap handles and bottles this time of year. Cinnamon and allspice notes are there, but they play second fiddle to the monstrous double-digit alcohol content, and rum and molasses aromas and flavors. If this were pie, consider yourself hit in the face.
With the current barrel aging trend in full swing—and seeing as how some beers (notably Chimay ales) have been sporting corks for ages—it’s hard to imagine how beer could more closely mimic wine in how it’s bottled, aged, served and priced. Vintages can’t be far behind. So if your wine steward is a sommelier, what will we call our beer stewards, besides “bartender?”
Serious Bragging Rights
In honor of Mountain Sun Pub’s Stout Month (February), they are having a homebrewed stout competition. It’s open to non-professional brewers and entries must be delivered to the Southern Sun Pub noon–2pm on Jan. 2. The winner works with the Mountain Sun brewers to create six barrels of your brew and have it served along with famous stouts during February. mountainsunpub.com/beer.htm.