Part 2 on Rolling out the Barrel...

The revival in woods fortunes within the brewing world is ironically based on the very factors that once made it less desirable to brewers - the imparting of flavour.

This of course would sound very alien to our brewing forefathers,  an anathema they would never quite get there heads around...

Now however rather than being frowned upon the quest is to leach the flavours from the cask to enhance the beers that mature within.

This again is a fairly new phenomenon in brewing terms going back some 20 years, and inspired primarily by the American craft brewers. 

There are of course parallels within the wine world here also and it is not always appreciated how much new oak barrels play in the lives of top Chateau wines. 

A  Grand Cru Chateau will spend vast sums on purchasing new casks as the tannin's to make there  wines mature and age in bottle do not just come from the grape skins and pulp, but crucially the wood itself. 

The brewer though is looking to impart his beer with the residue flavours of what lay within the barrels previously and there a vast array to choose from.

Whisky casks (broken down to individual malt distilleries in some instances) Bourbon casks, wine barrels, Armagnac, Cognac, Port, Sherry in fact nearly any type of alcoholic beverage that has required barrel ageing in its production process can be used - even Rum and Tequila have recently joined the list!

         The Fremont Dark Star Bourbon Barrel Aged beer is an excellent example of the                    style. The balance between wood influence and beer flavour is impressive. The                        2014  tasted recently still had the potential to age for many more years. With 
                                                     appreciation to Asya Alender.

This then can lead to a plethora of flavours, some subtle, which gently impart the flavour to the beer, and some not so.

The skill is in achieving the right level of influence, and not to the degree that the flavour of the barrel becomes overbearing.


Different types of wood therefore make big differences to the finished product, and depends very much on what type of beer is aged in the barrel. 

For example those looking to achieve an oak influence on a 'clean beer' ( ie: not of the Sour or Brettanomyces type) may use whisky barrels. 

Apart from the desired flavours they impart the added benefit to the brewer is that the whisky strength will have killed off any undesirable microbes that may have lurked in the barrel or staves. The porosity of wood can be an ideal breeding ground for such microbes, something 'clean beer' producers would be keen to avoid.

Those looking to produce a Sour or Brett beer however may look to ex wine barrels. Here they are not so interested in leaching out the flavour of the barrel but the porosity allows microbes to breed. But, there is a fine line between those that aid flavour and those that can be destructive. 

For example French oak is preferred over American as it is more porous, but can also harbour Acetobacter which would destroy the beer.


Naturally different woods will offer different values, some positive, some negative, and brewers are always willing to push the envelope and experiment. 

Brandy or Cognac barrels for instance have shown to leave an undesirable residual sweetness, almost cloying in a beer, whereas Cedar wood has proved too overpowering in flavour, a spiced pungency making it unsuitable for ageing.

Rye Bourbon barrels (which must have contained 51% Rye content by law)  will offer the brewer the same spiced character but less dominating in flavour.

Likewise Bourbon barrels (which must have contained 51% Corn content by law) will offer noticeable differences over whiskey, so all impart a different flavour imprint.

New oak (as mentioned  above a desirable element in top quality Chateau wines) has again proved too overpowering for beer maturation. Scraped or reconditioned barrels do however lend themselves just the right degree of flavouring.

One final point of interest is the terminology employed on the labels of the finished beers.

'Oak Aged'  in the American use of the term gives the impression it has been aged in wood, but this is not the case. Oak chips, cones or cubes may be added to the fermentation to give the necessary flavour illusion.

For the genuine article you need to look for 'Barrel Aged' only then do you have a beer truly aged in wood... 


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