Like the wheel, the invention of the barrel had lasting and momentous consequences for the advancement of humankind and for their desire to consume spirituous beverages.
For much of its life beer was fermented in wooden barrels until that pesky thing called human nature kicked in and we became woefully skeptical of all things germ related. You see wood is porous, it breathes and expands, it sucks liquids in and creates pockets for air and yes bacteria and while this was good enough for us to consume for hundreds of years (and remains good enough for wine and spirits) by the time the 1950’s rolled around it was no longer cool for beer.
So it was during this period that brewers’ transitioned to the use of cold and impersonal stainless steel, which while good for sanitation and frankly for the production of mass-market lager did little to retain that unique and funky character that can only be imparted through time spent in the barrel.
The Benefits of Wood
According to Mosher in Tasting Beer wood contains chemicals that dissolve in the beer over time producing woody, oaky, vanilla and other flavours in the beer. He goes on to speak about how porosity affords the creation of oxidized flavours and the growth of microorganisms, which lambic and sour beers depend on to create the bacterially driven tartness that defines these beer styles. With all this potential it makes you wonder why craft brewers stayed away from the wood for as long as they did.
So how to craft brewers come back to the barrel?
Well as usual it was intrepid home brewers who re-ignited the barrel-aging trend. It turns out that while beer may have turned away from the wood distillers and wine makers continued on using wooden barrels often only once to preserve the integrity of whatever they happened to be creating. This meant there was a surplus of oak barrels infused with wondrous notes of bourbon, of whiskey, of wine etc. just waiting to be filled with something …something beery. Mosher recounts how a group of Chicago-area brewers pooled resources to purchase spent bourbon barrels and many gallons of imperial stout; add A to B and presto you have a bourbon barrel aged stout.
After this experiment proved a rousing success the flood gates opened so to speak and all of sudden everyone was trying their hand at putting beer back into the barrel. There are many, many wondrous pairings from blonde ale in gin barrels to whiskey infused strong ale to fruit beers fermented in pinot noir to sour ales conditioned in chardonnay and my personal favourite anything dark and/or strong aged in bourbon barrels.
A Stellar Example of Why Wood is Good
Hair of the Dog Bourbon Fred from the Wood (Bottle Conditioned 2012) ABV 12%
Fred from the Wood pours a deep caramel colour with lots of cloud and sediment (try to leave the sediment in place by pouring this one slowly). There is tons of thick creamy head that remains firmly in place on top of the beer. The nose is an amazingly rich blend of bourbon, malt and toffee. This beer is big bodied with a creamy cloying mouthfeel. It is like Christmas in a glass, warming and heavy with candied fruit notes, vanilla, toffee and liquor. Fred likes to warm up to let all these complex flavours come into balance, it is also most definitely a sipping beer. Sweet liqoury finish with just a little touch of warmth reminding you just how strong this one is. If you have never had this beer go and try it immediately!