"Barrel Aging of Beer"
                                  Jim Attacap

Here's one vote for Firestone Walkers' Double DBA as best beer of 2012.  It's a
fabulous brew aged in bourbon barrels, a practice that is becoming more and more
popular. Since the early 1990s, when Samuel Adams was one of the first commercial
breweries to put its beer into used charred oak barrels previously used for Kentucky
bourbon, a large number of American craft breweries have begun to age beer in
barrels that once held American's only indigenous alcoholic beverage, bourbon.

In the past aging in oak barrels was fairly typical for wine and whiskey but was a rare
thing indeed for beer.  The times have surely changed to the point  that wood- and
barrel-aged beers merited their own category for the first time in the 2011 Great
American Beer Festival and had 40 entries.

Centuries ago, barrels were the only vessels in which to brew and store beers. Most
brewers strove to eliminate any flavorings that wood might impart to the beers,
soaking and scrubbing the wood to make the barrels as neutral as possible. In
industrialized times, of course, steel and aluminum serve a brewer’s purpose with far
less effort and wear than wood.  But in the last decade or so, brewers have given
barrels another look seeing them not as storage vessels but as tools that can make
beer more complex and interesting.

Barrel aged beers run the gamut of styles and flavors.  Some are dry and some  
sweet. Some are black as stout and full of toasty malt flavors; others are almost
golden, with complex fruit flavors.

In some beers, brewers encourage the effects of different yeasts in the barrel, which,
in the style of the lambic beers, produce intense sour flavors.  In others, the barrels
were used primarily to expose the beers to minuscule amounts of oxygen, which
when done carefully can add attractive toffee or sherry-like characters to the beer. In
still other cases, brewers use barrels that had once contained something else, like
bourbon, Scotch, Port or even pinot noir, hoping to impart to the beer trace elements
of the past contents.

Simply put, oak aging anything imparts enormous depth of flavor and mellowness
and complexity. Just think about some of the best, the real premier cru oak-aged
wines that you've had. You might not be able to point to exactly why you just love the
wine, but you do because it has this enormous depth of flavor. That's what barrel-
aging gives beer.

A majority of barrel-aged brews  tend to be expensive due to the high cost of labor
and storage since the are made by hand in small lots. And too,  barrels themselves
can be very expensive.  The majority of these beers are high in alcohol content, such
as imperial stouts and barley wines, because they stand up best to the wood. Hoppy
beers generally don't do well: Hops' flavor can react poorly to the small amounts of
oxidation that occurs in a barrel.

How long to age? That is entirely up to the brewer. Some beers may only sit in the
barrels for a few weeks. Others, such as Sam Adams Utopias may be aged in multiple
barrels for a number of years before they are ready for consumption.  The brewer  
must be careful that the flavor from the barrel does not overpower the flavor of the
beer.  It's part of their craft and skill.

So don't be afraid to try one of these beers, you'll see just what can happen to beer
in the hands of a great brewer.

Huge Beer Tax