Once upon a time—although not that long ago—in the land of beer, all ales and lagers came from wood. They would be conditioned in or served from barrels, foudres, puncheons and more. As stainless steel and other modernizations became more popular, wood was largely left by the wayside.
There are brewers who like to live by the adage “everything old will be new again,” and over the last few decades, breweries have again embraced wood as a way to bring something special to their beers. While once rarities reserved for special occasions like brewery anniversaries or holiday releases, barrel-aged beers of all kinds have become more commonplace. Even the smallest of breweries boast a barrel program that can consist of a few beers hanging out in wood in a corner waiting to be packaged. Larger breweries have gone all in on barrel programs, housing thousands of barrels in hulking warehouses.
Bourbon barrels are the most common for spirit barrels getting the beer treatment, but Tequila, Scotch, and rum barrel-aged beers also show up on tap lists from time to time. Wine barrels are also popular with breweries.
More recently, barrels have become a playground for brewers that want to offer dessert with a boozy kick. Known as pastry stouts, these thick, black ales are designed to mimic s’mores, doughnuts, cakes, pies and more. In many cases, brewers will just add the ingredients of the dessert into the mash, letting those flavors mingle. The wood and boozy flavors from the barrel are just a bonus.
Maltier beers, like Belgian-style quads, porters, barley wines and stouts are the preferred styles for brewers to put into wood. Often higher in alcohol, they are built to age and can spend anywhere from weeks to years inside a barrel before being packaged. Lagers and India pale ales are sometimes barrel-aged, but not as much overall.
No longer just for special occasions, barrel-aged beers are ready to open whenever the mood strikes.
Cascade 2017 Bourbonic Plague; $14/500 ml, 98 points. This is tart stone-fruit forward, with some light malt roast in the background that never quite settles on any of the traditional familiar flavors. A dry, tannic midpalate and finish would indicate that significant time was spent in wood, taking on the characteristics of previous occupants. The brewery calls this an imperial porter aged in Bourbon barrels with dates and spices. This is a springtime sipper, when there is still a chill in the air but promise of warm weather ahead.
Fremont 2019 Dark Star; $24/22 oz, 98 points. A barrel-aged beer does not need to hit the drinker over the head with a big, boozy, sugary concoction. Many do, but the ones excel in the style reveal themselves slowly. For this beer, it is not until a glass is halfway empty that wood notes start to emerge and then it’s basically as a supporting player to a remarkably constructed stout that has a deft use of malts with accents of coffee and chocolate. Full in feel, but not thick, this stout would be a delight to drink even if it wasn’t barrel aged, but the extra whiskey kick accents a dark malt bitterness in a pleasing way. Over time, this beer will mellow and become even more thoughtful.
Revolution Mixed Berry Ryeway Rye Ale; $40/12 oz/4 pack; 98 points. Pouring a shade of royal purple, this is sweet, tart and teeming with real juice from the raspberries, blackberries, cranberries and boysenberries that went into the recipe. Part of the brewery’s Deep Wood series of beer, this rye ale never feels heavy and lets all of the fruit tones shine—tart cranberry followed by tangy raspberry, then sweet boysenberry. The wood ties it all together with an earthy note before a strong cherry juice finish. A drinker can be forgiven for believing that there are antioxidants in this fruit-dominant ale but the following morning will have you knowing better.
Cigar City Kulich; $35/750 ml, 97 points. Sometimes you see a label filled with a multitude of ingredients (in this case it is raisin, orange peel, pineapple, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and lactose) and roll your eyes. Does a beer actually benefit from all that? In this case it works wonderfully. Altogether, this is a spicy, earthy, robust stout that has the perception of coconut and dark fudge on a viscous body. The orange peel accent is just faint enough to be a tease. The brandy barrel tones come across as smooth string notes and boosts up the raisin flavor. Drink one now and cellar one for five years to see how it ages.
Hermit Thrush Rowdy Monk Barrel Aged Sour Quadrupel; $14/16 oz, 96 points. Tart and refreshing, this ale was aged in red wine and Scotch barrels. With time in the glass, it reveals an undercurrent of red berries, plum, raisin and just a wisp of peat smoke. Finishing with flavors of underripe blueberry and raspberry alongside hints of herbs, smoke and iodine, this dark chestnut-colored ale is damn delightful.
Tröegs Bourbon Barrel-Aged Troegenator; $13/375 ml, 95 points. Aromas of warm raisin, crusty country bread and fig jam dance together in this dark copper ale. The boozy barrel notes offer up a fudge, vanilla and woody compliments to an already strong base beer. Easy drinking, with a bit of alcohol heat on the finish, this is one to open after a big, rich holiday meal.
New Realm Reserve Bourbon Barrel Quadrupel; $10/500 ml, 94 points. A strong kick of wood and booze boosts up this quadrupel and highlights many of the dark stone-fruit flavors that are a hallmark of the style. For a high alcohol beer, this is easy drinking and a flowery, fruity marvel that forces the brain to relax a bit from the day’s worries and unload some stress. This will only get better with some age.
Springdale Maple Brigadeiro Barrel-Aged Breakfast Stout; $15/500 ml, 93 points. This offers a combination of aromas akin to a familiar roadside diner just after the breakfast rush: pancakes on the griddle a minute too long and starting to burn, coffee going stale in a pot, maple syrup sticky in the air. This breakfast stout relies heavily on coffee and woody maple to carry it through. The body is thin, the carbonation is medium and while its familiar, welcoming flavors of the most important meal of the day isn’t a substitute for breakfast, it would be well at home next to a Belgian waffle and a side of crispy bacon.
Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout; $10/22 oz, 91 points. Despite its name, the Wild Turkey barrels used to age this stout need to be hunted out a bit. A little wood and a little booze emerge at the start, though it’s ultimately lively and bright. What the barrel does here is offer a bit oomph to an otherwise solid base beer, bringing it up with a little body and depth.