6 Barrel-Aged Beer Beauties
Many Wine Enthusiast readers understand the importance that oak plays in the world of wine. From different equipment choices (barrels versus staves or chips) to decisions about oak sourcing as well as toast-level options, there are myriad ways that oak can affect the end result. But how many people have begun to relay that information over to the world of beer?
French or American wood, Bourbon- or rum-soaked casks, used Zinfandel or Pinot Noir barrels—these are just a few of the options to consider when sourcing barrels for aging beer, with each imparting an individual identity and range of nuances to a brewer’s final product. Aromas and flavors of vanilla and coconut are commonly associated with oak aging, but other notes like cocoa, whiskey, toast, baking spice and, of course, a flavor of wood itself can all be connected to the aging regimen a beer receives.
Aging in oak is nothing new in the brewing world, but it’s a trend that has surged over the past couple of years. An increasing number of breweries are coming up with “barrel reserve” lines or special releases, turning out limited-production offerings that have undergone anywhere from 3–24 months of oak aging.
This month, we have a wide assortment of wood-aged beer styles reviewed for your consideration. Depending on your personal preference, not all of these beers will appeal to you. However, their overall complexity, depth of character and remarkable balance make these excellent examples of wood-aged brews.
Given their typically small production numbers, you have to be extremely diligent about picking them up upon release. And because of the expense of production, these selections do command a premium on retail shelves. But when you taste your Goldilocks—the one that’s just right for you—you’ll understand why you spent the extra time and money to be one of the lucky few to taste the good stuff.
Founders’ KBS, or Kentucky Breakfast Stout, has been at the top of beer aficionados lists for years as the ultimate in barrel-aged stout pleasure. It’s intense, bold and flavorful, with all the stuffing to cellar well for years. The nose overflows with aromas of bittersweet chocolate, espresso, Bourbon-soaked vanilla bean and roasted malt. Those notes continue through to the dense, creamy palate, with additional flavors of brown bread, molasses, cigar, dried plum and date. Woody spice and sweet vanilla tones linger long on the finish. Cellar Selection.
Brew (and fruit) master Dan Carey does it again with this latest R&D release: A sour brown ale brewed with Michigan peaches that’s spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts and aged in oak, with the final product being a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old beer. It opens with assertive sour-peach aromas, supported by secondary notes of barnyard, leather, toasted malt and oak. The medium-weight mouthfeel is round but juicy and vibrant in tart acidity and medium carbonation. The palate booms with a pure peach flavor, laced with hints of Bourbon spice, Bretty funk and hay. It finishes dry, tart and mouthwatering, leaving you ready for more. Cellar ready, try in fall 2015. Cellar Selection.
After five years, Mirror Mirror—a barleywine with 50% aged in oak barrels that previously held Oregon Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Malbec—is back. Labeled “best after 2/24/15,” this is definitely one for the cellar, and should hold and mature extremely well through 2017, at least. A strong, potent and flavorful selection, it’s bursting with rich malty flavors of caramel, toasted brown bread and turbinado sugar alongside supporting notes of dried cherry, raisin, cocoa and sweet oak. The mouthfeel is lush and filling, with a creamy body and pleasing warmth that carries through to the sweet-spice laden finish. Cellar Selection.
Brewed in December 2012 and aged for a year in Bourbon casks from Maker’s Mark, Four Roses and Heaven Hill, this is a thick, bold and strongly flavored selection. It pours an opaque black color, with a soft head that falls quickly. Upfront scents of warm dried fruits, vanilla bean, sweet oak and tobacco lead the nose, while the creamy mouthfeel favors plum sauce, boysenberry, roasted coffee and cocoa nib flavors.
Brewed with agave syrup and aged in Tequila barrels, this is an usual beer of layered complexity. It pours a hazy dark brown, with aromas of brown sugar, agave, pepper and smoky oak. The palate offers more rich malt flavors of caramel, molasses and toffee, with an overarching sweet smoke character that tarries through to the finish. The carbonation is low and the mouthfeel is slightly viscous, which is fairly common for many of Lost Abbey’s potent brews.
This is a flavorful yet approachable barrel-aged brew that offers attractive Bourbon tones of vanilla and toasted oak without being too overwhelming. It pours a dark mahogany color, with soft aromas of smoke and peppery biscuit that dance in the bouquet. The medium-weight mouthfeel has a slightly creamy texture, but brisk carbonation keeps it lifted and fresh. Traditional stout flavors of roasted cocoa nib, toasted nut, warm plum and dried cherry unfold on the palate, while notes of black pepper and vanilla bean hang around on the finish.