There is a lot to love about the obsession brewers have with barrels. Over the last 25 years, having a “barrel program” for American brewers has become a badge of honor and expected by consumers. Seeing a rack (or more) of barrels in a brewery these days is commonplace, but the liquid itself is not.
Wooden barrels, sometimes American oak, sometimes French, can be sourced from any number of locations. However, the traditions of the bourbon industry, where barrels are only used once, have aided brewers the most. The inclusion of imperial stouts, barleywine, Belgian-style ales or lagers in these barrels usually change the whiskey flavor enough that sits in the background and becomes a platform for the actual beer to shine.
After a single use with beer, a barrel can be used again and again for aging beer, but most of the spirit essence will be gone. Still, remarkable liquids can come from barrels that are filled time and time again, thanks to brewers who have honed the craft and are unafraid of experimentation. Brewers now seek out any kind of barrel they can get their hands on. Whiskey remains the most popular, but wine, Sherry, tequila and even the rare Scotch barrels are played with.
Brewers are working to find the right style of beer to match with each, and the thoughtfulness translates well into the glass. When it comes to what is bottled, brewers have taken to blending, finding several barrels that exhibit excellent character and finding ways to combine and improve upon each until settling into a final blend that delights the tastebuds.
Wood flavors from barrels or casks can be considered a fifth ingredient in beer, adding depth and complexity that complement and contrast the typical beer flavors. Generally speaking, if a brewer has chosen to put beer into a barrel, it’s worth seeing the partnership that it shows between wood and beer.