Barrel Aging: Tips from the Pros

The popularity of barrel-aged beer has grown tremendously in recent years, as brewers long for the added complexity imparted by oak. Here are three pros who earned medals at the Great American Beer Festival for their barrel-aged brews.

Brewer: Matt Van Wyk, Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, OR

We use any type of oak barrels we can get — American, French, and Hungarian — and don’t have a preference on the flavor impact each gives. We stick with previously emptied barrels to get an added complexity. Also I find new oak can be very aggressive and overpower beers.

Any beer style is free game for barrel aging, but typically it has to have some aging potential by being stronger in alcohol. When reusing spirit barrels I have found that residual sweetness in the beer often helps with the finished balance. Oak tends to dry out flavors in beers so some sweetness left behind helps.

We age anywhere from 2-3 months up to 2-3 years (for wild beers). It depends on what base beer is used and what overall effect is desired. It also depends on how much time I have to tend to them. We only use our bourbon barrels once. The flavor impact is so much lower on the second aging that it is sometimes not worth it. Plus, infection potential is greater each time you fill. With wine barrels, we’ll keep using them until anything negative occurs in them.

We have also used oak spirals, which work nicely. The surface area is greater so it doesn’t take as long, but you have to soak them first if you desire the character from the spirits. For homebrewers, keep everything clean and keep experimenting with wood types, aging times and beer styles. You never know when you’ll hit that “a-ha moment” with a barrel. Experimenta-tion is the name of the game.

Brewers: Adam, Jason, and Tyler Shifflett, Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg, VA

We age Belgian styles, stouts, porters; anything we can think would create an interesting flavor profile. Sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t, that’s the joy of experimenting.

We re-use everything from your standard bourbon barrels to rum, tequila, wine, Port, and Cognac for different projects depending on how the flavors will come together. We use all of our barrels for at least two separate beers. After the contributions from the spirit and wood diminish slightly from the first use we shift over to a subtler aging, or to a wild beer.

Aging times vary. Some beers like Resolute, our bourbon barrel Russian imperial stout, are aged over 10 months so we can pick up a ton of the vanilla characteristic, the mouthfeel gained from the wood and give the bourbon a long time to mellow out. Beers that we age in rum or tequila barrels are usually only aged a couple weeks. It really boils down to tasting the stuff and seeing where it’s at.

We don’t use oak alternatives at the brewery, but they are the only things I use homebrewing. Times are always a little different and you really have to try to take into consideration the amount of oxygen ingress. When homebrewing, you also need to be cautious about how much oak you use. With the push for more and more everything (hops, wood, alcohol, etc.) it seems that sometimes we lose sight that one of the most difficult things to do is balance a beer. This is particularly prevalent with barrel-aged beers where you can so easily make a beer taste like the base beer with a shot of a spirit in it. Time is generally your friend — let it age things out and don’t rush it.

Last and certainly not least, keep brewing! Homebrewers are the lifeblood of this industry with so much creativity and enthusiasm. You are all an inspiration!

Brewers: Dave Colt and Clay Robinson, Sun King Brewing Co. in Indianapolis, IN

Since opening more than four years ago we have put a wide variety of beers in barrels — including cream ale, Belgian ales, Scotch ale, lagers, porters and stouts — basically everything other than hoppy beers. We’re not picky when it comes to the barrels we use. The majority of them are bourbon barrels, given our proximity to Kentucky, but we do have some barrels that previously held wine, scotch, rum and tequila. We have never used new barrels — we like the way that the previous flavors interface with the beers and we try to make sure that the style of beer we are brewing is going to marry well with the flavors of the barrel.

We only use the bourbon or spirits barrels once because we tend to extract most of the flavor from them in that first batch. Then we move them to our souring program in a separate temperature-controlled room and fill them with beer that we inoculate with bacteria. Those beers sit for a year or more before we get the results we are looking for.

For our other beers, the time we age in the barrel depends on what was in the barrel and what we put into it. We typically pull a sample after three months and then decide whether it’s good to go or when we want to check again. Often the beer will age in the barrel for upwards of nine months at cellaring temperatures. We believe beer should always be stored cold in order to maintain its integrity.

We have also used oak spirals in bright tanks for a couple of beers. Because of the increased surface area, the aging process speeds up and it only takes a month or so to impart the oak flavors we are looking for.

Barrel aging is a process and it isn’t for someone who demands results right away. When we are asked by homebrewers for advice, the best advice we can give is, “Patience young grasshopper, patience.”

Issue: January-February 2014