So, you like beer — why else would you be here, right? Perhaps you love the limited-release barrel-aged beers that your favorite breweries pump out once in a while, but you’re not quite sure how they’re made. Well, you’re in luck — Jon Abernathy, the president of the Central Oregon Homebrewers Organization, gave us the low-down on these rich brews, notorious for their high ABV and depth of flavor.
Abernathy has lived in Central Oregon for most of his life. He’s a web developer, who writes about beer on the side — and has been brewing his own beer since the mid-’90s after being introduced to the hobby by a friend.
The first characteristic is the wood itself, which can range from subtle and mild to quite strong in character. From a flavor perspective you’ll find notes of wood (of course), but you may also find vanilla, spice, characteristics of tea, smoke, bark, and even astringency. Depending on the type of wood and if the barrel was previously used, you’ll then find different aromas and flavors that can be all over the board. Used spirit and wine barrels will typically impart strong characters reminiscent of the previous liquids they held, while new oak barrels will lean into the wood notes.
Typically it adds the step of aging the fermented beer in the barrels for a period of time that can range from weeks to years, so a standard brew might be ready to drink in 3 to 4 weeks from brewing, whereas the barrel aging will add quite a bit more time before the finished beer is ready.
While any style can be barrel aged, it doesn’t necessarily mean any style should be barrel aged. Typically strong, robust styles that can stand up to the wood and/or spirit (if previously-used barrels are employed) are among the best, such as imperial stouts and strong ales. On the other hand, many sour beer styles that might be quite a bit lighter also age quite well in barrels, because many of the organism used in the souring process thrive in a barrel environment and can produce amazing characteristics you would not get otherwise.
Any type of barrel that can be used to age spirits or wine (or other food-grade products) can be used, and are. With previously-used barrels, the beer will pick up flavors and aromas from the liquid that preceded it in the barrel– so bourbon barrels will impart bourbon characteristics to the beer. If new barrels are used, the beer will pick up character from the wood depending on what type of wood is used and how the barrel is prepapred; for instance, neutral American oak will have a minimal impact on the finished flavor of the beer, while barrels that are charred inside (as would typically be prepared for whiskey) will impart stronger flavors of char, smoke, vanilla and similar by-products of the charring process.
Yes! There are barrels available in homebrew-friendly sizes such as 5 to 15 gallons, which a single homebrewer can use quite easily. Full-sized barrels can be used as well, and in fact COHO has done some group projects where the club acquired a full sized barrel and members all brewed batches of the same recipe of beer to fill it. It can be quite a fun process with very rewarding results!
It’s hard to pick just one! One I always come back to is The Abyss from Deschutes Brewery, which is a big imperial stout that is aged in a variety of barrels including bourbon, wine, and new oak. But I also really enjoyed Crux Fermentation Project’s In The Pocket, which is a rustic saison aged in Pinot Noir barrels. There such good stuff out there from many breweries that it’s always hard to choose.