Brewer’s Notes: Barrel Aging
Filling barrels is an act of faith. They have a tendency to leak, especially right after filling. There’s a risk that the beer that comes back out of the barrel will be undrinkable. Believe me, it happens: the beer can sour in some weird, unpalletable way, or just come out with some strange off-flavor that just makes it unsalvageable. So you dump it, and down the drain goes a year or more of aging and high expectations. But magic things can happen to the beer inside the barrels in the right conditions, yielding truly mind-blowing beers.
Here at Gotahold, we’ve got a couple of barrel-aging programs we’ve embarked on: aging strong beers in spirit barrels, and aging “wild sours” in wine barrels.
These are barrels that were made for, and in most cases have already held distilled spirits such as bourbon, rye whiskey, rum, tequila and others. We love spirit barrels because they are great vessels for maturing rich, strong and highly flavorful beers; the barrels add to the overall character of the beer in ways that would be impossible to emulate otherwise.
Certain flavors will slowly work their way out of the wood and into the beer. Oak has naturally occurring tannic notes which add body and mouthfeel. Flavors reminiscent of vanilla and coconut are also naturally occurring notes derived from oak. Since these are charred barrels, we also sometimes see smoky notes. And of course any remaining liquor from the spirit that was stored in the barrel before we receive it will find its way into the beer, increasing the alcohol content and adding flavor notes of that liquor.
Strong beers such as Imperial Stouts and Barley Wines really like to have an extended period of maturation to reach their full potential, and wooden barrels are great for this purpose. The wood is porous, allowing some of the water and alcohol of the beer to evaporate, and allowing a slow ingress of oxygen into the beer. This slow breathing of the beer has beneficial effects on the overall flavor profile, leading to a rounder, richer and more delicious beer. Look for a barrel-aged Barley Wine and Imperial Stout from us before the end of 2020!
Oak barrels are available that have been used to age wine. Typically, these barrels have held wines that require an oak component to the taste profile, so once they’ve been used a few times and most of the oak flavors have been absorbed into wine, the winery sells off the barrels. We like these barrels for fermenting wild sours. The porous wooden staves of the barrel provide a perfect home for the microflora (yeasts and bacteria) that will transform an otherwise ordinary beer into the incredible taste sensation that is a barrel-aged sour. Typically, we’re giving the beer a primary fermentation in stainless tanks, and then running it into barrels for a long secondary fermentation where Brettanomyces yeasts and lactic acid bacteria will slowly add a lactic tartness, interesting fruity notes and those exotic beer notes sometimes described as “funk,” “horseblanket,” and “barnyard.” Yes, these are positive descriptors!
We’re just starting to fill barrels with these types of beers, so it will be 2021 before we see the first fruits of this program.
Barrel-aged beers are special beers. We can make a great IPA, Stout or kettle-soured beer in a few weeks, but the barrel-aged beers are on a months to years timeline. Often, barrels will be blended to make a truly great beer; one barrel might yield pungent funky aromas, and another might yield a bright lactic sharpness and the combination of the two, maybe with a third barrel that has nice oaky and tannic components might be a truly amazing combination. A lot of handling goes into cleaning, filling and emptying barrels. They are a labor of love for us here at Gotahold!
These beers are made for a special occasion, which could be a holiday meal, or simply celebrating an afternoon of great friends and fine weather. They make great gifts, too. Watch for our first releases around the holidays.