As most of my friends will attest, I love a big barrel aged beer especially at this time of year when you need a warming, rich beer that hugs you on its way down and there are some mighty fine ones out there right now. This is putting me in a difficult situation as I am in the middle of buying a house and so I am not meant to be buying beers for the “cellar” as it would mean we have more beers to move, but I just can’t help myself!
I’ve often toyed with the idea of barrel aging a homebrew but so far have not fully looked into how much of a faff it is so now would probably be a good time. Firstly, I’d need a barrel. Now there are loads of barrels you could choose from. Just this past month I’ve had beers aged in grappa, rum, bourbon, Cointreau, pinot noir and chardonnay barrels. Obviously different beers would suit different barrels and bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts are up there as my favourites, they impart smokey, vanilla and wood flavours (as a side note gin aged in whiskey barrels is glorious). Not all beer styles work however; big hoppy beers would lose their flavour profile by the time it is done in the barrel as hop aromas fade over time. Low ABV beers (except sours) would run the risk of contamination and the barrel flavour would overpower the beer and could end up tasting overly of the wood. There’s also a big risk of producing a really imbalanced, astringent beer. I’d like to get hold of an amaretto barrel myself and stick a stout in it or perhaps an ouzo or herb liqueur barrel. I’ve seen 25l herb liqueur barrels for sale and will be very tempted once I’ve moved to get one and stick it in the spare room with some saison in.
The faffing starts when you get the barrel. Ideally, you want the barrel to be as fresh as possible, like 2 days after being emptied. The second problem is size. A lot of commercial barrels are 100l+ and not suitable for a homebrewer such as myself. It’s best to contact small boutique distilleries who may have smaller sizes. Your barrels may be good for 2 uses but after that the flavour of the spirit will have vanished but they can be used as souring vessels so all is not lost! Smaller barrels may also impart flavours quicker than larger ones meaning you only age for 2 months. Bigger barrels can take six months or more plus high ABV beers can inhibit the process with their high alcohol content so patience is needed. Stick it away somewhere and forget about it. Other ideas could be to put the barrel aged beer into another fermentation vessel with fruit afterwards to ramp up the flavour profile more.
Barrel aged beers I love
Brooklyn Cuvee Noir – I had this so long ago but can still remember how it tastes even now. It’s a Belgian Strong Dark Ale (well more of a stout made with Belgian yeast) and then aged on bourbon barrels with orange peel for 6 months. It’s refermented in the bottle which gives it a velvety mouthful with notes of coffee, chocolate and orange and vanilla and toasted coconut from the barrel it’s like all of your favourite desserts rolled into one. Wish I’d not guzzled down my bottle and kept it for further aging. Try also Brooklyn Black Ops.
Wild Beer Wineybeest – This is their usual Wildebeest (an imperial espresso chocolate vanilla stout which is very good in its own right) aged in pinot noir barrels for 9 months. It still has the big chocolate and vanilla stout taste but with an added berry tartness and balsamic. It rich and vinous and a great alternative to a bottle of wine.
Anspach & Hobday Barrel Aged Triple – working at the bar I’ve had the pleasure of drinking this a few times and also had to apologise many times for it not being available in the bottle. Guys bottle some of your barrel agers, there’s a demand! It’s a malty, sweet triple aged in Chardonnay barrels. The first run was aged for a month I believe and came out deeeeelicious. I hate chardonnay so I was sceptical when I saw the barrels but this works. wonderfully. There’s some lovely fruity apricot flavours and a bitter sweet finish. It’s certainly boozy but a good one to have if you’re after just the one (ie not a session!). The guys have some syrah barrels kicking about so watch this space.
Rodenbach Caractere Rouge – I’m greedy therefore I have 2 bottles of this at home. It’s a flanders red aged in oak vats for 2 years (technically not barrels but fuck it) and then it goes through an additional aging on cherries, raspberries and cranberries before being refermented in the bottle. It’s a lesson in how to marry flavours. You get the cranberries first up, then some figgyness, dried fruit and spice and then the raspberries but its super smooth. No astringency, no vinegar, it’s not overly sugary and it’s not overly acidic. It’s just perfectly balanced. You get the fruit, you get tannins, you even get the malt and slight Brett but it’s not overpowered by any of these things. Another great replacement for wine. There were only 900 bottles of the first edition from 2011 made but the 2012 edition is more numerous and I’ve seen a few still out there on sale.
Harviestoun Ola Dubh – Their usual Old Engine Oil beer ramped up to 10.5% and aged in Highland Park 18 year old single malt casks for up to 6 months. It’s a thick black slick of a beer (Ola Dubh is Gaelic for black oil). It’s chocolatey sweet, woody, tabacco with raisins and dried fruit, the barrels used to hold the whiskey were used to hold sherry in a previous life so you get some sweet fruity flavours from that. It smells very very much of whiskey and freshly laid tarmac and is a lovely warming drink to have with a bit of chocolate on a shitty cold day.
If you really want to go barrel aged mad try a Beer Geek Breakfast Brunch Big Blend from Mikkeller. It’s the usual (fantastic) coffee oatmeal stout which is aged on bourbon, brandy, cherry wine, cognac, tequila and whiskey barrels and then blended. I’ve not tried it yet but it sounds risky.
I’ve got a couple of barrel agers in the “cellar” (cellar is actually a larder); these include Brooklyns Quintaceratops (a Belgian quad aged in rum barrels and then whiskey barrels). De Molens Blood Sweat and Tears (Bloed, Zweet & Tranen) a smoked beer aged in oak barrels. Shnoodlepip by Wild/Burning Sky/Fork Brewing a saison made with pink peppercorns and then aged in French wine barrels for 4 months and finally with passionfruit and hibiscus flowers added. Lastly I have a Tsjeeses Reserva Bourbon BarreL Aged, a Belgian ale aged in bourbon barrels of course. Along with a few sours, it’s hard to keep your mitts off this stuff.
If anyone knows of any other barrel aged beers I’d like let me know