Barrel aged beers have a very special place in our heart and over the past four years, we’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible breweries to help launch some very special BA beers. From Firestone Walker’s first ever release of Bravo, their Imperial Brown Ale aged in Bourbon barrels to the UK, to Founders Brewing Co Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) and Canadian Breakfast Stout (CBS), two of the highest rated beers in the world with around 40 people coming along to our Balham store to sample the beer fresh from the keg.

One of the reasons these beers are so very special is that they take a lot of patience to brew, having been left in barrels for up to a year before being bottled and then left to undergo further conditioning in the bottle. The end result are beers which really stand out from the crowd because of the depth of flavour this ageing process adds to a beer.

When people think of barrel-aged beers, the style which most people’s minds go to initially are the darker beers, like the KBS and Bravo beers we helped launch. One of the most famous barrel-aged beers in the world, and also reputedly amongst the very first to ever get given the whiskey barrel treatment was Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, a huge beast of a beer, weighing in at a hefty 14ish% ABV. Because spirits are almost always 40%+ ABV and with huge, very pronounced characteristics, you need a base beer which will be able to stand up to the flavours the barrels will imbue and stouts are the easiest way to go about this. The other reason is that when you’re craving for an Imperial Stout, you’re looking for decadent, rich, deep flavours that are challenging and introducing these characteristics from other alcoholic drinks just adds another level of depth to the final beer.
It’s not just ex-whiskey barrels that can be used for barrel-ageing a beer, however. We’ve had beers that have spent time in everything from red wine and gin barrels, to apple brandy and tequila barrels. These will all bring their own characteristics to the beer, meaning that seeing the phrase “barrel-aged” with no mention of what kind of barrel is about as useful a descriptor as saying a beer “has been hopped”. In fact, even describing a beer as “whiskey barrel-aged” or “red wine barrel-aged” isn’t very helpful. Independent wine shops and spirit stores wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a wide variety of different styles, each with their own unique identity. A peated whiskey like Islay will bring a huge level of smokiness alongside the expected whiskey characters, whilst a fruity whiskey like Heaven Hill with impart some rich red fruit flavours as well.
One brewery who are particularly useful when it comes to understanding just how big the differences that different styles of whiskey can make to the final barrel-aged beer are Weird Beard. Their much-loved Sadako sees semi-regular single-barrel-aged releases every few months, with the original barrel made clear on the label. Although we only have the base beer in at the moment, these are great examples of why it’s important to understand what barrel your beloved-aged beer came out of. Another brewery who showed that even ageing your beers in different “clean” first filled oak barrels may not be as straight forward as it can first appear is Cloudwater. Having aged a biere de brut in fresh oak barrels from three different cooperages (barrel-makers) around France, trying the three side-by-side absolutely bowled us over. One was far drier than the other two, one very citrusy and the third slightly sweeter with some vanilla character coming through. Although some difference may be down to different natural bacteria travelling with the barrel from its place of origin, it just shows that barrel-ageing isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Barrel Aging Beer
Photo from Brew Bokeh

In their barrel-ageing cave 85 feet below the ground (seriously, they have an ageing CAVE!), Founders have around 2,100 barrels hibernating. A large portion of these are dedicated to their KBS and prior to its release, all the barrels are tasted and then blended together to try and average out any inconsistencies. Whilst a few every year go sour, and some just aren’t up to scratch for whatever reason, this huge collection of barrels ensures that should anything go wrong, they can normally fix it pretty easily.

The other great thing that you can do when barrel-ageing stouts is to age them on other ingredients. Because alcohol acts as a solvent, when you’re ageing a high-ABV stout or porter, you’re going to be able to pull out even more flavours from whatever you’ve put inside the barrel alongside the beer. A perfect example of this are Stone’s two beers, Crime and Punishment. Aged on the same blend of super hot chilli peppers, where the higher-ABV Punishment which comes in at a weighty 12% ABV is just pure spice heat, Crime allows a few more fruity flavours from the peppers to come through… although it’ll still wipe out your tastebuds for a little while (and maybe make you weep)!

We’re huge fans of Belgian Lambics  and there’s no doubt that barrel-ageing is more important to these styles of beers than to any other – without ageing, they literally could not exist. These are slow beers which need time and patience to create,  the funky yeast and bacteria doesn’t work its magic overnight and instead takes months and years to create the incredibly complex range and depth of flavours. The way Lambic breweries treat their barrels and why they do it is pretty different to most other brewers and it’s incredibly important to the final process.
Most Lambic brewers will use second-fill oak barrels which have preferably been filled with white or red wine, although they also use spirits and the like. This is because all the characteristics have already been extracted by the barrels’ previous occupants and won’t pass on to the Lambic. For most of their base Lambics, the barrels will then be scraped clean with a beechwood twig brush, followed by spinning sharpened chains, before being steam cleaned and then filled with burning sulphur.
This presents the Lambic producer with a barrel which is essentially a blank canvas. Over time, however, these barrels develop their own particular characteristics and the brewers will sometimes release these as single barrels instead of blending them. There are also times when the brewer chooses to not strip back the flavour of the original barrel for special releases, such as the St. Lamvinus and Vigneronne from Cantillon where the original wine characteristics lend a vinous edge to the beer.
The subject of barrel aged beers is vast and we’ve only really just touched the surface with this piece. Our instore range of BA beers is changing all the time and our bottle shares are often great chances to give some of them a try.