I love barrel-aged beers and I know that a lot of other people do too. The growing popularity of barrel aged beer isn’t surprising! It’s quite unbelievable how much flavor a little barrel can add to your final beer.
Aging beer in barrels can add exciting new depths of aroma and flavor, and the world of barrel aged beer is enormous and sometimes rather hard to navigate trough, so here is a little article for you guys
The process of Barrel Aging
Lets talk about what happens when beer sits in a barrel for a period of time! When beer is aged in a barrel, the beer will absorb some of the various chemical compounds present in the wood, such as Lactones (which provide floral aromas and flavors, and sometimes even hints of coconut), phenolic aldehydes (vanilla), and the simple sugars (caramel).
When the beer has found its way into the barrel, an interesting process begins. First of the beer will begin to absorb flavors of strong caramel and vanilla and if the barrel had been used prior to the beer barrel aging, any flavors left over from the previous beer or spirits will also make its impact on the barrel aging process.
Barrel aging is a rather time-consuming process, and can span from 1 to 2 months (If the brewer only wants mostly woody notes or a slight hint of spirit e.g. bourbon). If the brewer wants the deeper aromas and flavors of the barrel, the beer has to sit about 6 to 12 months in the barrel - That way, the beer can fully soak into the staves to bring out those more delicate flavors can any style be barrel aged? Well Generally, barrel aging is best suited for beers with higher alcohol contents and stronger flavors that can stand up to the barrel, and not be covered up by, the various flavors from the barrel.
Barrel aging is about complimenting and refine/improve as well as a way to introduce a bit of oxidation. Oxidation exposure can mellow out the high levels of alcohol present in the base beer. If you want to dive into the world of barrel aged beer, go for styles like Imperial Stouts, Dubbels or strong ales but also sours / wild fermented beers improve when time has been spent in a barrel.
Okay, now to the important part – navigating the different types of barrels?
There is a wide array of barrels in the world of barrel aged beer, and the basic ”go to” barrel is the oak barrel.
You see almost all barrels used are Oak barrels, but there are different varieties of Oak: French, White, American. Occasionally also Cherry, Walnut, Chestnut, Pine & Redwood have been used in barrel production.
Typically, when you see other wood varietals mentioned on the beer bottle/can, they are chips added during the secondary fermentation – some times brewers also straight up choose to age on chips, as they are much cheaper than a whole barrel. When using this technique, the beer is aged in steel tanks with wood chips added.
Let's go over the different types of barrels, and the flavor profile the spirit/barrel can bring to the beer.
Honorable Barrel mentions:
Oak Barrels: The profile is really determined by the level of barrel toast. Lightly toasted oak showcase spicy flavors, like cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Further toasting brings out aromas and flavors of vanilla, caramel and nuts. Heavily toasted barrels will impact the Beer with a smoky or butterscotch like taste. BUT such barrels are typically reserved for bourbon and scotch.
Bourbon Barrels: Bourbon barrels are Heavily toasted/charred barrels which impact the beer with a whiskey component most of the time, along with subtle traces of vanilla and sometimes molasses, cocoa, light smoke and dark fruits.
Scotch Whisky / Islay Barrels: Scotch is made with malted barley. But most scotch are made with barley which has been dried/smoked over peat fire, which thereby will impact with a smokey, meaty bacon’ish aroma and flavor,
but often you’ll also find notes of figs, golden raisins, and sometimes even coffee.
Brandy Barrels: Beer that has spent time in brandy barrels develops differently; it all depends on which fruit the brandy was made from - pear, plum, or apple and how long the brandy sat in the barrel. Generally beer picks up a spirit like taste, which is a bit sweeter than whiskey and has tastes of flowers, fresh fruit but also dried fruits, and citrus zest.
Cognac Barrels: First of the aroma and flavor profile impacted by Cognac barrels depends on the timespan the barrel held cognac, before being used for barrel aging beer. As with brandy, Cognac is made from fruit –
BUT it must come from the Cognac region in Southwest France, and must be made from white grapes from one of six different terroirs in the cognac region. When having a Cognac barrel aged beer, you’ll most likely pick up notes of flowers - jasmine, iris, fresh fruit - citrus, passion fruit, dried fruits, spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. But you’ll also find traces of toffee, nuts, chocolate, cigars and earthy black truffles.
Wine Barrels (Red/White):The aroma and flavor profile often comes down to which type of wine, was previously in the barrel used for barrel aging the beer. But you can be sure to find aromas and flavors of some oak toast - coconut, vanilla and of course fresh and dried fruits - White and red grapes but also raisins. Barrel aging in wine barrels often making the beer more vinous.
Rum Barrels: It all comes down to how toasted the rum barrel was, and which type of rum (White Rum, Gold Rum, Dark Rum, Demerera Rum, Spiced Rum, Rhum Agricole and Naval/Overproof) was present in the barrel prior to the beer barrel aging. Overall the beer that has aged in rum barrels will have a profile of spices, tropical fruit, vanilla, caramel, grassy notes and even some yeast esters from the fermentation prior to the distillation.
Tequila Barrels: Tequila can be fermented with either commercial grown yeast or wild yeast (from the surface of the agave or surrounding environment), which can in fact impact the overall flavor of the tequila. You’ll find notes of Vegetal/green/herbal notes (Agave), fruits and earthier flavors, which often are developed by the yeast under the fermentation process prior to distillation. Lastly the age of the type and age of the Tequila present in the barrel, prior to the beer barrel aging will also add a distinct aroma and flavor to the barrel. Types of tequila span over Silver/Blanco/Joven, Gold, Reposado and Anejo.
Tequila is all about showcasing the wonders of the plant Agave tequilana- So that's what you’ll encounter in tequila barrel aged beer.
Aquavit Barrels: Want to try a beer with the flavors of the most well know Scandinavian spirit? Well then go for an Aquavit barrel aged beer! Aquavit is flavored with an array of herbs and spices. The flavor profile of Aquavit is often flavors of dill, caraway, cardamom, cumin, anise, fennel, and lemon or orange peel.
Pommeau /Calvados Barrels: mixing apple juice with apple brandy – Calvados, makes Pommeau. The Pommeau is then left to age in barrels for around 30 months, and flavor wise it shares a lot of the same traces of calvados.
Calvados is distilled from cider and then aged. As calvados ages, it soaks into the staves of the barrel, and leaves a wide array of flavors deep inside the staves. The aroma and flavors left are of apples, dried apricots, butterscotch, nuts, and chocolate.
– Perfect compliments for a beer like a stout.
Mezcal Barrels: as with the tequila, Mezcal is made from the plant Agave, but bound by rules tequila must be made from Agave tequilanawhereas Mezcal is free to be made from all the other types of agave plants. Mezcal differs a bit versus tequila in flavor profile. This is because of how the agave was treated prior to crushing (to juice the plant) fermentation and Distillation. As a matter of fact it isn’t the whole agave plant, which is used, but only the heart of the Agave. – First off the heart is toasted, and caramelized before juicing. This process is where the Mezcal gets its distinct smokey aroma and taste.
To sum it up, want a beer with the same profile as tequila, but with notes of smoke? Go for a Mezcal barrel aged beer!
Sherry / oloroso Barrels: Sherry is a fortified Wine made from white grapes, which means a small amount of spirits has been added at some point in the fortified winemaking process – after fermentation, Sherry is aged in Oak barrels, to the point where the sherry maker has reached the desired aging length. As Sherry ages the whole aroma and flavor profile often changes, as an effect of oxidization in the barrel. Flavor wise Sherry can range from really sweet, to bone dry with notes of salt, white grapes, almonds, apples and floral notes.
The reason I also want to also highlight Oloroso Barrelsis because Oloroso is a variety of sherry that has spent a great amount of aging thus creating a flavor profile of toasted almonds, walnuts, balsamic notes, wood, tobacco, truffles and leather. The flavor profile of Oloroso really show how much aging can affect a liquid, thus also having a different impact on the beer which will age in the used Sherry/Oloroso barrels
So if you want a beer with a lot of toasted nutty notes, fruits and floral notes, go for a Sherry Barrel aged beer.
I believe this covers most of the most barrel types used for barrel aging beer, so let’s just sum it up. The world of barrel aged beer is enormous, and maybe a bit overwhelming at times. I really hope that my article gave some insight, and perhaps created some interest to dive deeper into the fantastic barrel aging world. Next time you're browsing the web or bottle shop for some barrel aged beer, I hope you’ll remember ”HopSkulls compass: Navigating the world of barrel aged beer!” and look to my article as a helping / guiding hand so you’ll have the knowledge about each barrel thus making your beer selection much easier.
Till next time – Hopskull out.