Barrel-aged beers are more popular than ever before. In fact the #2 beer in the world, according to both Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, is Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, and that position isn’t an anomaly, but instead just the most famous of the incredible number of barrel-aged beers that are now considered by beer drinkers to be some of the best beers around.
It’s safe to say, barrel aging beer is definitely something that’s becoming more than just an experiment of rogue craft brewers. Hell, Budweiser is even doing it, creating their Michelob Bourbon Cask Ale every winter. And the reason for these beers’ popularity is simple: the wood adds complexity to beer, just as it does to wine, and it allows the creators to add one more wrinkle to the brew – plus it creates some damn interesting and delicious beverages.
While it’s unclear when barrel aging truly began in terms of mainstream craft beer – Lambics and other sour beers have always been aged in wood, while aging IPAs and stouts is a relatively new phenomenon, with Goose Island claiming to have been the first to use bourbon barrels in 1992 – barrel aging really took off about ten years ago, as both brewers, along with winemakers and distillers, all saw the opportunity for adding years to a barrel’s life when recycling it for beer.
When wine or liquor go into a barrel, each of these beverages is looking to gain characteristics from the wood and the char in order to impart flavors and nuance into the liquid. At some point in the barrel’s life, these flavors get fully extracted, and the barrel normally would be discarded, but with beer, most brewers aren’t just looking to impart the flavors of the wood into the libation, but also the flavors of what was in the barrel previously. It’s a match made in heaven and what makes barrel aged beers so exciting. In one sitting you could have a beer aged in an old whiskey barrel, then try one that has spent time in a barrel that used to hold Chardonnay, and finish with a beer aged in a barrel that was once used for port. With each beer, you’ll not only taste the craftmanship of the brewmaster, but also experience the faint influence of the original winemaker or distiller. It’s pretty awesome.
Since most beers that wind up being barrel-aged are usually higher in alcohol, we love to drink these heavier beers as the weather starts to turn cold, and we’re looking for something to help us warm up. To help get you started on your barrel-aged beer journey, here are 6 of our favorites:
A beer from the brewery to first popularize barrel aging. The combo of the heavy stout with notes from the bourbon screams of winter.
Perfect if you like a good scotch.
This is for the fans of sour beers. A delicious beer with notes of sour cherry, which it gets from spending time in barrels that used to hold Pinot Noir.
An awesome barrel-aged beer, but the gimmick is that you have to be able to find it first.
A Belgian triple that’s aged for 3 months in white wine barrels, which mellows out the alcohol.