For someone who drinks a good amount of beer, I know precious little about the brewing process. That’s something I’m hoping to change, which is why you can expect to see me exploring quite a few brewing basics on the site in the coming months. Today, I’m diving into barrel-aging, which is way more complex than I assumed. Pull up a stool and pour yourself an imperial stout while I dig into the basics of barrel-aging beer, wine, and spirits.
Barrel-aging is exactly what is sounds like. It’s the process of aging beer, wine, or spirits in a wooden barrel. (Some wine is aged in steel barrels, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Of course, the barrels in question aren’t just storage vessels; they’re a key factor into the alchemy that informs a beverage’s flavor. Barrel-aging allows mere mortals to manipulate liquid, air, and the chemical compounds present in the wood to create rich, complex flavors. Brewers can work with different types of woods—cherry or oak, for example—in addition to manipulating finishes and aging time. All of these factors can contribute to the flavor of the beverage.
Barrel-aging beer seems like an age-old practice, doesn’t it? Seems like a total Viking move, no? (Hang on, I’m frantically Googling “did Vikings have barrels???”)
While the beer-loving hordes of old may have used barrels for liquid storage and fermentation, barrel-aged beer is actually relatively new to U.S. craft beer consumers. Hop Culture reports that, in 1992, Chicago-based Goose Island became the first U.S. brewery to mass-produce a barrel-aged beer. That was only 30 years ago! Aged in bourbon barrels, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is still available—but now other breweries have caught up, cranking out aged imperial stouts and barleywines using similar processes.
Per Hop Culture, brewers like barrel-aged beers because of the rich flavors present in the wood. The beer soaks into the barrel over time, absorbing chemical compounds that create rich flavors ranging from caramel to coconut. Sometimes florals sneak in there, too. Personally, I think the aromatic depths of a barrel-aged beer are priceless, especially when enjoyed as a cold-weather drink. (During the dog days of winter, nothing’s cozier than New Holland Dragon’s Milk stout.) Overall, barrel-aging seems to be best for high-ABV beers with strong flavors—beers like strong ales or imperial stouts that won’t be overwhelmed by the flavors imparted during the aging process.
Barrel-aging has a place in spirit production, too. Take Patrón Añejo tequila, which is aged in an oak barrel for a minimum of 12 months. Distillers take a similar approach for bourbon, which is aged in charred oak barrels.
Of course, per MasterClass, barrel-aging is also the cornerstone of the wine-making process. Once a wine has been transplanted to a barrel, it begins something called élevage, which is the French term for “raising” or “upbringing”—the last step before the wine is bottled. Basically, it’s when the wine becomes a grown-up. Like I mentioned above, winemakers use all sorts of barrels during this process, including steel and oak barrels.
Whether you’re aging a beer, wine, or spirit, the most important thing to know is that barrel-aging is much more than just allowing a liquid to settle into itself. It’s a very intentional process during which the liquid absorbs the chemical compounds present in the barrel. Next time you taste a barrel-aged beverage, try to imagine how it was aged. Do you taste floral accents? A hint of coconut? Both of those elements could speak to the compounds present in the barrel itself. And though we may be moving out of imperial stout weather, there are plenty of spring and summer beverages that flaunt the effects of barrel-aging. It’s tequila time, dudes.