It was a busy afternoon at the Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. Patrons were shoulder to shoulder enjoying pints and having raucous conversations. All the tables were crowded, and the barstools were long filled. There was not much respite for those without a seat. Looking around the room offered few options, but before anyone got the idea that some functional bits of décor could offer a place to relax, a sign taped to the barrel head dispelled any such notions.
“Please do NOT touch, lean on or stack belongings on barrels! They must rest in peace,” it read.
The barrels in the cozy Decorah, Iowa-based taproom are not just for aesthetics but are also used to age all manner of beers that would soon be packaged and served. In the meantime, outside interference is frowned upon.
Among the 9,000 breweries in the United States, it’s safe to assume that the majority have a barrel program. These can range from the modest—a half dozen or fewer—to the massive: thousands stored in climate-controlled 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 been embracing it amid this modern renaissance. “I’ve always been drawn to the idea of honoring the barrels as an ingredient that can be used to accentuate inherent flavors and add complementary flavors to the beer, as well as utilizing barrels to contribute complexity and balance with a goal to enhance drinkability,” says Eric Schmidt of Amalgam Brewing in Colorado.
Barrels at Pulpit Rock Brewing Company’s taproom / Photo Courtesy of Revolution Brewing
After clay pots, wood was the next vessel used historically for fermenting and aging beer. Stainless steel has been the preferred modern method thanks to its ease of cleaning, ability to keep out unwanted microbes and to hold pressure.
However, wood never fully went out of fashion. Plenty of Old World breweries continued to use barrels to age beers, and the newer breweries that popped up over the last four decades also started experimenting from time to time.
In the late 1990s, a new category of beers began to appear on shelves. Big, boozy imperial stouts that spent time in bourbon and other whiskey barrels quickly began to capture stomachs and minds.
“One 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 the barrel-aged bullseye and remains a vibrant hub for the style today. It was nearly 30 years ago that Goose Island, then an independent brewery, released its first Bourbon County Brand Stout, a strong dark ale that spent time in freshly dumped bourbon barrels.
The brewery, now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, still releases the beer—along with a half dozen other variants—each year on the day after Thanksgiving. It has become an event that other breweries have copied with their own interpretations around the country.
“I think having it start at Goose all those years ago, we’ve been exposed to it longer and more directly than most. It’s been in supermarkets for a long time,” says Marty Scott, who runs the expansive barrel program at Revolution Brewing. “We like drinking 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 are working with barrels.
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 categories specifically for wood and barrel-aged beers at international beer competitions, and there is even a festival dedicated to the beers held annually in Chicago.
A niche industry has popped up that links distilleries and wineries of all sizes with brewers looking to buy discarded barrels, and relationships have formed between the industries with barrels sometimes being passed back and forth. The growth of barrel-aged beers has also meant that brewers are not just waiting for holidays, anniversaries and special occasions to release these decadent brews.
Many brewers will focus on porter, stout and barleywine or other “clean” beers for barrel programs, while others have embraced “wild” or sour programs that allow mixed culture fermented beer to sit in wood creating vibrant, rustic and acidic brews.
From Mexican lagers in tequila barrels to saison in wine barrels, nearly every style of beer in the modern age has received a barrel treatment at one point or another. Imperial stouts, because of the style’s hearty nature and flavors and aromas of malt-derived chocolate and coffee, still seem to be the ale of choice for regular barrel-aging. When it comes to barrel-aged stouts, whiskey barrels are still the top choice among brewers and drinkers. This is thanks to the single-use barrels that come with bourbon production, and it means that there are often both familiar names and everyday brown liquor barrels available. Any good barrel-aged stout needs to start off as a solid base recipe. A barrel, even one that still boasts big flavor, cannot successfully hide all flaws in a poorly made beer. Brewers need to focus on their craft first.