Many regard Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery Bourbon County Stout (BCS) with the title of first Bourbon barrel aged beer. It was originally brewed in 1992 in honour of the 1000th batch of beer by the brewery, but didn’t become available in bottle until 2005. More brewers began to introduce barrels to their process and the crowd loved them, solidifying BCS’s spot in the craft beer hall of fame.
Let’s not be mistaken though, the use of barrels in brewing is not a new concept, just a forgotten one.
If we were to rewind way back, ancient civilisations used terracotta or clay amphoras for brewing and storing (we are now seeing a resurgence of this trend in the wine world). Once barrels were invented around 0ce, they eventually became the chosen vessel for every step of the brewing process except the boil. Beer was fermented, stored, and even served out of barrels (you may have heard of ‘cask ales’).
The barrel is a beautiful and complex friend to beer. Wood is a porous material, it ‘breathes’ (expands and contracts) with changes in temperature and humidity, which can lead to oxidative characters in the final product. It also means that the wood is a suitable habitat for bacteria and wild yeasts. Depending on what style you were brewing these characters could be favourable, or quite the opposite. Sans some Belgian (ie. Lambic) and other styles, the presence of funk or tartness would largely be considered an infection in modern day brewing, however if you think of the fact that wood was the primary material used for beer in the past, it's extremely likely that all historical beers would have had these ‘imperfections’. It's no surprise then that come the middle of the 20th century, steel had taken over brewhouses and pubs.
We have barrels, and their complications, to thank for the invention of many prevalent styles today. They were used to ship beer to British colonies around the globe, so to stave off infection and ensure the beer’s stability on their journey, high ABVs and addition of hops (which contain preservative properties) resulted in, among others, the IPA and Russian Imperial Stout. The RIS would later become the source of inspiration for many American brewers during the craft beer revolution to create the modern-day Imperial Stout.
And with the revolution barrels gave brewers a whole new world of flavours to play with dependent on their size, age, wood species, and previous contents. Barrels come in an array of sizes all with their own unique names (Hogshead, Puncheon, and Port Pipe to name a few). The intensity of the barrel characteristic relates to the volume of liquid in contact with the wood; A smaller barrel will impart more characteristics than a larger one.
There's French and American oak which have different flavour profiles, and “new” and “old” oak. The newer the barrel, the more characteristics the barrel will impart. Bourbon uses strictly primary-use barrels, meaning they have never been used, therefore there are many ex-Bourbon barrels out there for brewers and distillers to get their hands on. If a producer uses a barrel that has previously held a different spirit, that barrel is secondary use – these are the most popular barrels for beer as the final product retains flavours and textures from the prior inhabitant. These barrels can either be ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ depending on how long since the previous liquid was emptied, with wet barrels being the flavour bombs and dry lending more subtleties. There is no limit to creativity with all the barrel possibilities available out there. You can barrel age in ex-wine, whisky, sherry, port, apple brandy, aquavit, tequila, absinthe, or other beers.
Then there are continuous use barrels. These are older and often lend very little to no characteristics to the liquid within. You’ll often find these in wild ferment breweries as the barrels are a perfect fit to add complexity via the ecosystem within their walls without overpowering the delicacy of the drink.
With all the possibilities, it's no wonder that breweries around the world are beginning to have their own barrel rooms, and that some of the world’s most renowned beers have spent time in these complex vessels.
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