The Next Frontier in Barrel-Aged Craft Beer

Once an obscure beer geek obsession, beers aged in unorthodox barrels—from mezcal and aquavit barrels to those that once held Tabasco or Boulevardiers—have become the new frontier. Aaron Goldfarb on what's working, what isn't and what the future holds.

matt brynildson firestone walker beer barrel-aged

Last Christmas I brought a bottle of beer to a gathering that I consider to be undeniably delicious, if not exactly revolutionary in the beer world. Yet when party guests tried Other Half’s Veldrijden Love—a chardonnay barrel-aged saison—their eyes lit up. Effervescent, winey, slightly funky and complex—most people in the room hadn’t realized beer could taste like this. But most people in the room hadn’t ever tasted barrel-aged beer before.

Before stainless steel tanks and kegs were invented, storing beer in barrels was simply a necessity. The crucial difference is that these (mostly) oak barrels were lined—often with pitch, a type of tar—so as not to impart any other flavors to the beer. Germans, Czechs, English and even Americans used this storage method well into the 20th century to little fanfare.

It wasn’t until 1992, when Greg Hall of Goose Island Beer Co. put one of his stouts into an emptied Jim Beam barrel that a new generation of barrel-aging was born. But while his Bourbon County Brand Stout may have invented a new genre of beer so complex and boozy that Hall would often claim, “One sip has more flavor than your average case of beer,” it didn’t immediately start any trends. The 14-percent ABV monster existed as a tap-only special occasion beer at Goose Island’s Chicago brewpub until 2005, and even five years ago the pricey bottles would gather dust at my local Whole Foods. Now, rarity-craving beer geeks—whose hearts flutter at the words “barrel-aged” on a label—line up yearly to land some of the celebrated stout and its even more limited variants.

Other breweries began following Goose Island’s lead by 2005, typically aging rich imperial stouts, whose hefty malt backbone is able to withstand the potency of the bourbon wood infusion. The style’s quintessential cocoa and coffee notes also play well with a barrel’s vanilla, caramel and oak compounds. Some early successes were Founders KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout), first bottled in 2003; The Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share, launched in 2006; and The Bruery’s decadent Black Tuesday, which exploded onto the scene in 2009.

For nearly a decade, the hottest trend in beer making flew below the radar. “Bourbon barrel aged beer” doesn’t even appear on Google Trends until 2013; two years later, just about every brewery on earth is bourbon barrel-aging something or other.

Just as quickly, bourbon barrel-aged beer has become passé in the eyes of beer geeks, presenting a certain sameness of flavor across the board. Sure they’re all still “good,” but after the pinnacle of perfection that is, say, a Bourbon County Brand Stout (or a KBS or a Black Tuesday or a Firestone Walker Parabola), where is there left for breweries to go?

The answer is, obviously, other barrels.

The Third Wave of Barrel-Aging

I like to think we’re now entering what I’ll call the Third Wave of barrel-aging. If bourbon barrels were the Second Wave, the First Wave was traditional Belgian lambics and gueuzes from breweries like Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen and Oud Beersel. These brewers have been aging their spontaneously fermented beers in unlined wooden barrels and giant vats (“foeders”) since about the mid-1800s. Unlined barrels allow oxygen to permeate the vessel and microbes to breed inside, which in turn produces sour, tart brews. In turn, a current class of American “wild” ale makers like The Lost Abbey, Russian River, Allagash, Jolly Pumpkin, Cascade, Side Project and de Garde, are taking them as inspiration, using not just oak but wine barrels to create their sour ales.

Third Wave barrel-aging is trying to figure out what else might be possible. The problem is that aside from bourbon and wine, so few other barrels seem to work well. Molly Browning, the barrel program manager at Brooklyn Brewery, oversees a 2,000-square foot warehouse filled with some 750 barrels and has been integral in helping the brewery produce some recent barrel-aged classics like Hand & Seal (a bourbon-barreled barleywine) and K is for Kriek (a Belgian-style ale aged in bourbon barrels with cherries).

“Some barrels—for example, tequila barrels—are certainly trickier than others,” says Browning. “Generally, though, I think all barrels can make good barrel-aged beer, but you need to be mindful of the beer you are putting in there.”

Sweeter spirit barrels seem to produce the most enjoyable end products. Founders had one of their biggest hits ever when they aged an imperial stout in bourbon barrels that had previously also held maple syrup to produce CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout), while the recent emergence of rum barrel-aged beers (Avery Rumpkin, Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Bomb!, Hardywood Park’s Rum Barrel Gingerbread Stout) has been met with success as well.

If smooth and sweet barrels make the most sense for barrel-aging, I’ve conversely found barrels that once housed really intense spirits—like, say, single-malt scotch—don’t work quite as well. While the harsh, smoky flavors of scotch may taste great on their own, they don’t seem to mesh well with beer. It was a surprise, then, when Browning and Brooklyn Brewery found some success last year with another smoky spirit’s barrels. The brewery aged their Local 1 Belgian golden ale in a Del Maguey mezcal barrel for six months, creating San Luis Del Rio, a smoky yet fruity offering unlike any beer ever produced. Unfortunately, brewmaster Garrett Oliver was only able to land a single mezcal barrel, so the beer never saw distribution and exists only as a “Ghost Bottle” served at special tasting events.

That’s another reason the Third Wave of barrel-aging is taking so long to take off. As tough as it’s become to get bourbon barrels, getting “other” barrels may be even more difficult. What many people don’t realize is that most spirit barrels actually start as bourbon barrels. By law, bourbon makers are only allowed to use their barrels once, so afterward they are sent to scotch, rum, tequila or, yes, mezcal distilleries. That aforementioned Del Maguey mezcal barrel actually started its life as a Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel, and the only reason Brooklyn Brewery was able to secure it was because Oliver has a friendly relationship with Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper.

For younger breweries without the right connections, getting the obscure barrels they want has proven to be a tricky—and expensive—endeavor. Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson summed it up nicely: “Dragging barrels across the border, speaking to guys on the phone in another language, not being able to use barrel brokers like you can use to acquire bourbon barrels—it’s difficult.”

Brynildson’s Paso Robles, California, brewery has managed to work around these challenges to become one of the most innovative brewers in barrel-aging. He’s not only found major success in bourbon barrels, but has recently completed a new facility exclusively for crafting wine barrel-aged “feral” beers (what they call their wild ales) and is exploring everything from mezcal barrels sourced from Fidencio to vanilla-laden amburana wood barrels previously used to age cachaça.

What’s Next?

“A great barrel-aged beer is not a gilded lily,” said Garrett Oliver. “There should be something about the barrel character that actually completes the beer.”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with wild attempts to create something unique—as Brent Cordle, the barrel aging manager at Odell Brewing Co., told me, “Sometimes you have to roll the dice and trust your gut”—but that doesn’t mean everything odd is praiseworthy.

If the next great barrel for aging beer is to be discovered, it will probably happen at FoBAB, or the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers. Inspired by that first Goose Island stout, the Chicago festival is set to enter its 12th year with this November’s two-day event. There, many of America’s top barrel-aging breweries will unveil their latest attempts at defining the state-of-the-art.

In recent years, the festival has presented beers aged in barrels that have held gin (Off Color’s Papillon), absinthe (Spiteful Brewing’s Klutzy Buffoon), aquavit (Breakside Brewery’s Aquavit IPA), mead (Northdown’s Majestic Emu) and even Tabasco (Ten Ninety Brewing’s Tabasco Imperial Porter). Last year even saw an imperial stout aged in barrels that Utah’s High West distillery had once used to age bottled Boulevardier cocktails (Temperance Beer Might Meets Right).

Most of these are so small batch most will never get the chance to try them. However, in the unyielding search for novelty, the chance to try something truly unique is of paramount importance—even if many of these beers are surely nothing more than disappointing curios. Because this instinct is common to the beer geek world, I’ve begun to wonder if this barrel-aging arms race has caused modern American brewers to be more interested in making an “interesting” barrel-aged beer than simply a good one.

What surpasses fad to become future will be the beers from brewers who choose barrels based on their ability to truly improve a beer, rather than merely differentiate it. Or to put it another way: those who manage to find purpose within seemingly endless possibility. As Brynildson joked, “One of the problems in barrel-aging is focusing in on what to actually focus on.”