The world of craft beer is filled with innovation. Many styles have been researched and reset; however one of the trends that are gaining massive popularity nowadays is the process of barrel ageing beer.
This has been perfected for hundreds of years before the age of modern brewing and is now making a significant reappearance.
What is Barrel Ageing?
This category, which has some crossover with Specialty Beer, is at its basic definition beers that are aged in non-neutral wood barrels for a specific amount of time. This is done to produce an intentional wood-influenced flavour effect (oak, caramel, toasted oak), or flavours derived from the alcohol previously aged in the wood (bourbon, scotch whisky). A wide variety of beer styles can benefit from barrel ageing, although darker or more alcoholic styles have been popular choices.
Why is it done in the first place?
Despite other options like stainless steel available, barrel ageing is gaining increasing demand. This is because, while stainless steel is sterile, it does nothing to add to the character of the beer nor do they improve its quality or flavour during its ageing process. The same goes for glass too.
But wood does. Ageing beer in wood imparts elements of the wood’s flavour profile into it. The most frequently used wood is Oak, but other types of wood are used too, depending on the brewer’s flavour, aroma and taste requirements.
Beer is not aged in new wood barrels, as they can impart a very bitter taste to the end product. Instead, most brewer’s employ previously used barrels like rum, rye etc. though whiskey is the most famous. These used barrels are only used once while distilling spirits and then discarded; hence they are widely available and for cheap.
A good example would be bourbon barrel-aged beer, with a multitude of craft breweries putting out their varieties. And it’s not just spirits, wine barrels with red and white wine residues can also be used to give the beer an unmistakable flavor while aging.
Is it conditioning or flavoring?
In the past wood barrels were used for conditioning, that is, the beer was fermented in the barrel. There are still a few barrel-conditioned beers in the market, but they’re usually available at beer festivals. Most barrel-aged beers are not conditioned in the barrel but aged to impart particular flavour attributes to the beer.
So most brewer’s add fermented beer in the barrels before letting them sit for up to two weeks. The longer it sits in the barrel, the more pronounced the imparted flavour gets. After ageing, the beer is re-carbonated and bottled or put into beer kegs destined for festivals or other events.