Ask Mr. Wizard

Barrel-Aged Beer Styles

TroubleShooting

Jason Munson - Savannah, Georgia asks,
Q

I have now completed my first successful batch of homemade beer and am excited to move on to new things. It took me nearly four years between a failed batch of vinegar-tasting stout to try again but now I have had a success. Over these past few years I have done plenty of reading and thinking on the processes I would use once I got into brewing on a regular basis. Now it would appear with my first success that this will become a regular thing and I have always had it in my mind to age a beer in a 5-gallon (19-L) oak barrel, possibly from a bourbon producer. From all I have read, it would appear as though those barrels are pretty much a one-time use. Is this true? If so, with such a large investment into a one-time use, what styles would you recommend for use in the barrel? I am not meaning what styles are commonly used but instead, if I am to try this experiment for my first time is there a style that would be better than another? I prefer heavy, dark beers but still love all styles and appreciate each for their own individual characteristics.

A

One of the most common beer types to age in bourbon barrels is strong stout. The rich, roasted flavors from the stout marry well with oak, vanilla, coconut, and Bourbon notes from the barrel. Additional layers of complexity can be gained by blending fruit-aged stouts to the mix. Other strong beers with a sturdy malt backbone, such as barleywine and Scotch ale, are also commonly aged in used Bourbon barrels. The nice thing about these big beers is that they often times oxidize with grace, developing Sherry and dark fruit flavors that work well with the complexity of the Bourbon flavors.

But big, robust beers are not the only things being aged in Bourbon barrels. Lighter colored beers with moderate alcohol levels, sour beers, and dry ciders can work very well with barrels. It really is a matter of bringing together flavor combinations that result in a beautiful blend.

There are challenges involved in this process, with the list header being finding a barrel for your project. Although smaller distilleries, especially new companies wanting to quickly get their product to market, sometimes use small barrels, the norm is to use larger barrels. All Bourbon, by legal definition, is aged in new American oak barrels, thereby guaranteeing a constant flow of used Bourbon barrels. These barrels are used to age all sorts of beverages, including Scotch, rum, tequila, and beer. With the growth of Bourbon-aged beer the supply of Bourbon barrels has tightened up, but it is still pretty easy to find them if you are only looking to buy a small quantity. Finding wet, small barrels can be more of a challenge.

Jargon note: The term “wet barrel” is industry lingo for barrels that have been emptied, yet still contain Bourbon in the sponge-like wall of the barrel and sometimes even sloshing in the bottom. You want a wet barrel when making Bourbon barrel beers.

Beginning with excellent beer is required. Period. Anything else is simply too much of a gamble. If the beer intended for barrel aging has flavor flaws, they will likely persist in the finished beer. Sure, the Bourbon barrel flavor may disguise flaws, but for such an expensive beer, the threat of aging a subpar beer is simply too much of a risk.

The beer also needs to be very clean because the extended aging process gives bacteria and wild yeast time to spoil beer. But even excellent, clean beer can spoil during aging because Bourbon barrels can harbor spoilage bacteria. Recently, there have been several product recalls of commercially-produced barrel-aged beers because of off-flavor development in the bottle. This has prompted many of the larger producers of these beers to add pasteurization equipment to guard against this sort of problem.

The exciting thing about aging beer in Bourbon barrels is that the transfer of barrel flavor to the beer occurs fairly fast, especially when using small barrels for the first time. Think 4-6 weeks, not 4-6 months. Sampling is important and the easiest way to remove samples from a barrel is through a nail hole; just make sure you use a stainless steel nail and to remember to drill the hole and install the nail before filling your barrel! Then you just pull the nail out and collect a sample of what’s aging inside.

You can certainly use a Bourbon barrel more than once and continue to extract Bourbon flavors into beer, but the second, and perhaps third use, results in less Bourbon aroma and takes longer to extract the flavors. Subsequent uses will also increase the risk of beer spoilage.

OK, now for some advice on jumping into barrel aging that you may not want to read . . . put this plan on the shelf and pull it down after you have more homebrewing experience. You relay a bad experience with a vinegar-laden stout that kept you away from homebrewing for four long years. Don’t set yourself up for another potential disappointment!

Success with one batch is not enough to prepare for the bourbon barrel challenge. You need to successfully brew several batches, at least five to ten, to get ready. This will do two important things. The first is that it allows you to prove to yourself that you have the whole cleaning and sanitizing routine mastered well enough to produce normal beer. These successes also will help you to keep your previous failure in the past and will help prepare you for a potential failure. Failure is a real possibility when aging in a barrel and you need to feel good about your process and ability to brew. Remember that excellent, clean beer can be ruined by a bad barrel and, unless you have a beer microbiology lab equipped to screen your barrel, there is no way to know if you have a good or bad barrel.

When you are ready for your first Bourbon barrel beer, knock on wood and let ‘er rip! Chances are that you will be very happy with the outcome.

 

Response by Ashton Lewis.