It was a busy afternoon at the Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. Customers were side by side enjoying pints and having loud conversations. All the tables were crowded and the stools had long been filled. There wasn’t much respite for those without a seat. Looking around the room offered few options, but before anyone had the idea that certain functional decorative elements could provide a place to relax, a panel taped to the head of the barrel dispelled such notions.

“Please DO NOT touch, lean on, or pile personal effects on barrels! They must rest in peace,” it read.

The kegs in Decorah’s cozy dining room in Iowa not only look good, they’re also used to age all kinds of beer that would soon be packaged and served. In the meantime, outside interference is frowned upon.

Of the 9,000 breweries in the United States, it’s safe to assume that the majority have a barrel program. These can range from modest – half a dozen or less – to massive: thousands stored in air-conditioned warehouses that are kept out of public view.

Stainless steel is the preferred medium for lager and ale fermentation, but brewers have a fascination and appreciation for wood and have embraced it amid this modern renaissance. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of ​​honoring kegs as an ingredient that can be used to accentuate inherent flavors and add complementary flavors to beer, as well as using kegs to bring complexity and balance. to improve drinkability,” says Eric Schmidt of Amalgam Brewing in Colorado.

Barrels at Pulpit Rock Brewing Company Tavern / Photo courtesy of Revolution Brewing

Why Wood?

After clay pots, wood was the next vessel used historically for the fermentation and aging of beer. Stainless steel has been the preferred modern method due to its ease of cleaning, ability to keep out unwanted microbes and hold pressure.

However, wood never completely went out of style. Many Old World breweries have continued to use casks to age beers, and the new breweries that have sprung up over the past four decades have also begun to experiment from time to time.

At the end of the 1990s, a new category of beer appeared on the shelves. The big boozy imperial stouts that spent time in bourbon casks and other whiskey casks soon began to capture stomachs and minds.

“An iteration [of a barrel-aged beer] creates another iteration or inspires thoughts or conversations among more and more brewers,” says Dave Colt of Sun King Brewing. “I think it’s just a natural progression of things.”

Chicago is the center of barrel-aged bubble and remains a vibrant hub for the style today. Nearly 30 years ago, Goose Island, then an independent brewery, released its first Bourbon County Brand Stout, a strong dark ale that spent time in freshly poured bourbon casks.

The brewery, now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, continues to release the beer, along with half a dozen other variants, each year the day after Thanksgiving. It became an event that other breweries copied with their own interpretations across the country.

“I think it started at Goose all those years ago, we were exposed to it longer and more directly than most. It’s been in supermarkets for a long time,” says Marty Scott, who runs the extensive keg program at Revolution Brewing. “We like to drink big, and there are a lot of brewers who worked at Goose who left and took that experience with them, whether they left town or not, and now there are a lot of breweries, big and small , who work with barrels.

Sun King Brewery
Stacked Sun King brewing bottles / Photo courtesy of Alexander Rodgers Sun King Brewery and Spirits

The new style

The style has grown in popularity. There are now specific categories for wood and barrel-aged beers at international beer competitions, and there’s even a dedicated beer festival held annually in Chicago.

A niche industry has emerged that connects distilleries and wineries of all sizes to brewers seeking to purchase discarded barrels, and relationships have formed between industries, with barrels sometimes being traded. The growth of barrel-aged beers also means brewers aren’t just waiting for holidays, birthdays, and special occasions to release these decadent beers.

Many brewers will focus on porter, stout and barley wine or other “clean” beers for barrel programs, while others have adopted “wild” or sour programs that allow beer fermented from mixed culture to sit in the wood to create vibrant, rustic and sour beers.

From Mexican lagers in cask tequila to saison in cask wine, almost every style of beer in the modern era has received a cask treatment at one time or another. Imperial Stouts, due to the warm nature of the style and the chocolate and coffee flavors and aromas derived from the malt, always seem to be the beer of choice for regular barrel aging. When it comes to cask-aged stouts, whiskey casks remain the top choice for brewers and drinkers. That’s thanks to the single-use barrels that come with bourbon production, and that means there are often both household names and everyday brown liquor barrels. Any good barrel-aged stout must start with a solid base recipe. A barrel, even if it still has great flavor, cannot successfully hide all the flaws of a poorly made beer. Brewers must focus on their craft first.

“You won’t improve a beer by putting it in a cask,” says Scott, who notes that he never finished the first barrel-aged stout he was served in 2008. “A basic beer will be oxidized by a barrel, there is going to be absorption, evaporation, and concentration. It goes in the barrel still and hot for an extended period of time. Processing a beer and getting it out the other side with a good taste is a lot of work.

A good mix is ​​also important. Unless a brewery has a single barrel, the final beer that is packaged will draw many barrels, be carefully tasted and evaluated on its own merits, and then combined with others to create a harmonious finished product.

Walking through the breweries’ wood cellars, guests will notice various marks on the barrel heads. Sometimes names stand out, like Pappy Van Winkle or Weller or Maker’s Mark. These get well-deserved oohs and aahs, and when the finished beer has been mixed, carbonated and packaged, these cask provenances are displayed on menus and labels and can command princely sums.

But brewers point out that bourbon quality or brand name often plays a minor role in the finished beer. “I call them good story barrels,” says Scott.

Amalgam brewing
Close-up of Amalgam Brewing wax seals / Photo courtesy of Gray Box Studios

beer to share

For a long time, these big, boozy, barrel-aged beers found their way into oversized packaging, including 22-ounce glass bottles nicknamed “bombers.” The idea was that these special beers, which usually exceed 10% alcohol, would be opened on special occasions and shared among friends or enthusiasts during bottle sharing.

They were also adorned with special labels, marked with a vintage or year of release and often topped with a theatrical flourish. Fremont Brewing in Seattle, for example, regularly deploys volunteers and workers to hand-dip 22-ounce bottles in wax to both further seal and add an aesthetic finish to its multitude of barrel-aged products, at the Maker’s Mark. Small breweries often have employees do the same for their wrappers using melted wax in slow cookers.

As keg programs have evolved and the style has become more common, some brewers have moved away from bomber bottles in favor of more traditional 12-ounce packages (and even some 8-ounce cans). This has led to barrel aged beers being sold in four or six packs and can even be perfect for a weeknight or non-special occasion. Indianapolis-headquartered Sun King Brewing, which has a robust keg program that has won numerous awards, has begun packaging its wooden offerings in twist-top boxes.

The ubiquity of the style has also led some brewers to lower the abv in more sessionable offerings or start using neutral wood to really let the natural tannins and flavors, not just the spirits, seep into the beer. .

In the same way that beer takes time to come out of wood, drinkers tend to spend a little longer savoring barrel-aged beers.

“A big part of the appeal is digging into the beer to connect with unique and complex flavors that aren’t always inherent in the base beer itself,” says Schmidt. I really think being able to connect with other flavors and experiences is one of the joys of drinking beer. There is so much to discover when drinking a barrel-aged beer. It’s like reading the liner notes of an album, with drums, time, location, temperature, mix, etc., all of which are starting points for further exploration and understanding.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Passionate about wine magazine. Click here to subscribe today!