We love barrel-aged beers and, judging by the number of questions we receive about the process, we know a lot of other people do, too. The growing popularity of barrel-aging isn’t surprising, given how much flavor a little barrel can add to your final beer. Aging your beer in barrels can add exciting new depths of aroma and flavor to your final beer.
When aging your beer 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 coconut), phenolic aldehydes (vanilla), and the simple sugars (caramel). When the beer is first in the barrel, it will begin to absorb very strong caramel and vanilla flavors, as well as any flavors left over from the previous beer or spirit residing in it, if any. Over time the beer will soak deep into the staves of the barrel before being pushed back out again, taking with it all of the rich flavors and compounds from the wood. That’s when more delicate flavors and aromas, like florals, begin to shine through.
Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind before deciding to barrel age your beer.
Can any style be barrel aged? Sure! Should every style be barrel aged? Probably not. Generally, barrel-aging is best suited for beers with higher alcohol contents and stronger flavors that can stand up to, and not be covered up by, the various flavors from the barrel. Think Imperial Stouts, Dubbels, or strong ales when considering whether or not to barrel age. Try to avoid aging beer styles with fresh flavors, such as IPAs or wheat beers. The exceptions are sour or wild fermented beers, which we’ll discuss another time.
So you’ve decided to age your beer in a barrel: the next item to consider is what kind of barrel to buy. Oak barrels are the most readily available to buy, so we’ll only cover oak barrels in this post. But, you run into two choices when purchasing an oak barrel: new or used.
If your barrel is new, you’ll need to treat it and clean it before use, eliminating any bacteria or organisms that could be hanging out in the wood. (Now’s the time for some thorough online research of proper cleaning and treating barrel methods!) If your barrel is used, you may not need to clean it. If you are using a freshly emptied spirit barrel, cleaning is usually not necessary thanks to the sterilizing effects of the high proof alcohol once held in the barrel. If you’re using a wine barrel or an older spirit barrel, it’s best to follow the same cleaning procedures as a new barrel to help prevent bacterial infection.
The next step is to gauge the size of the barrel you’ll need. Generally speaking, the smallest “used’ barrels that are available hold about 5 gallons (and are usually used bourbon casks). There are now some distilleries that have begun selling their used barrels to the public, both in-person and online. You can also find new barrels in sizes as small as 1 liter. However, keep in mind that the smaller the barrel, the faster the basic wood and spirit flavors will be absorbed. Those flavors of caramel and vanilla can overpower the base flavor of the beer, as well as accelerate evaporation. Which brings us to our next point…
Two very important questions to ask yourself: How long should you age your beer? At what temperature? It depends on what flavors and aromas you’re trying to achieve. If you just want mostly bourbon and wood notes, aging for 1 to 2 months is, generally speaking, enough time. If you really want some of the floral and deep vanilla notes of the barrel, you’ll want to age it for a longer period of time, anywhere for 6 to 12 months. That way, the beer can fully soak into the staves to bring out those more delicate flavors.
As for temperature, it’s generally speaking best to keep the barrel at a constant temperature, usually between 55 to60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, some variations in temperature can cause the wood to expand and contract, aiding in the absorption and extraction of the beer from the staves.
Finally, before bottling your finished barrel-aged beer, be sure to transfer, or “rack,” the beer from the barrel into a clean, sanitized vessel, and let it to sit for a couple of days. This will allow any heavy wood particles or sediment that may have been picked up to settle to the bottom.
That pretty much covers the basics! If you keep these five factors in mind, you’ll be well on your way to some barrel-aged goodness. Have more questions? Email us to find out more – we’re always happy to help!