I often take for granted that people are familiar with different beer styles, given the rapid explosion of the craft beer industry. But many of my peers’ beer drinking days ended shortly after their college years, and their idea of beer remains Coors or Bud.
Most people are familiar with today’s IPAs and other popular craft beer styles. But I’m certain it comes as a surprise to know that there are as many as 120 different beer categories and subcategories, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program.
One of the most popular styles right now is barrel-aged beer. Not fashioned for the casual beer drinker expecting a light and refreshing thirst-quencher, these brews are for sipping slowly.
Technically, a barrel-aged beer is any style of beer that has been aged in a wooden barrel. The contact with the wood or with wood chips brings out unique flavor characteristics specific to that kind of wood (mostly oak), or from what was previously stored in the barrel. In many cases, that was bourbon, rye, rum, brandy, port wine or other spirits. The liquor-soaked wood influences the taste and aroma of the beer, adding unique and delicious flavors such as vanilla or spices. Depending on the barrel and the time the beer has been aged (typically six to 18 months), it also adds distinct boozy qualities and increases the beer’s alcohol level.
The process tends to enhance the beer to a complexity more commonly found in wine. These strong brews are best sipped from a brandy snifter glass rather than a pilsner glass.
Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company released its first Bourbon County Stout in 1992, and today the annual “Black Friday” release brings long lines to liquor stores nationally. The style has become so popular that almost all craft breweries have at least experimented with putting beers in barrels – most to great fanfare and success. Some have become quite proficient, including Simon Brown and Brian Seffer at Claremont Craft Ales, where there are almost always one or two delicious barrel-aged brews on tap. Hangar 24 in Redlands offers its incredible “Barrel Roll” series with special seasonal releases. And while barrel-aged bottles may not always be readily available at grocery stores, reputable liquor stores may carry as many as two-dozen varieties.
Noted beer makers like Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos and Patrick Rue from The Bruery in Placentia have gained international fame for their barrel-aging genius. Upon recently sipping a bourbon-barrel-aged Deliverance Ale, one out-of-town visitor to Port/Lost Abbey exclaimed, “This is Christmas in my mouth!”