Craft beer drinkers prove they have the patience for barrel-aged brews

If it's true that patience is a virtue, then barrel-aged beers and ciders just might be the most exemplary entry in any brewer's portfolio. 

Those same brewers are finding that investing in barrels and setting aside space to age their products, in some cases for up to two years, is paying big dividends as consumers have proven willing to not just wait for the brews to age but happy to pay handsomely for a chance to try them.

Whether it be in used bourbon, gin, chardonnay or rum barrels, or in new oak casks, barrel aging creates a complexity and flavor profile not often found elsewhere in the world of craft beverages.

"Barrel-aged beers always catch the eye," Brian Steele, co-owner of Kalamazoo's Boatyard Brewing says. "I think there are two reasons for that: one, you get really great complexity, you get so many subtleties from the wood. The other is, the craft beer drinker is looking for variety, something new and different. I think that's a major driving force for some of the experimentation that's going on at the breweries."

Initially, that experimentation was limited primarily to stouts and porters that had been aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. The darker, malt forward beers tended to blend well with the sweetness of the residual bourbon in the wood, bourbon that would often impart camel, molasses, and vanilla notes into the beer.

Over time, as beer drinkers began to crave a more unique experience, and brewers became more familiar with aging, beer styles and barrel options began to diversify. With that came the realization that different barrels can distinctly change a beer's character and the search for the perfect marriage of barrel and beer had become an exciting pursuit for many craft enthusiasts.

Facilitating the search are folks like John Gill, owner of The Barrel Broker, a Menominee Falls, Wisc. dealer of used wine and spirits barrels.

Gill's 4,800-square-foot facility houses upwards of 400 barrels at any given time, barrels that are shipped all across the United States, and overseas as well. The Barrel Broker deals in rye whiskey, red wine, white wine, rum and single-malt whiskey barrels while also handling the occasional uniquely flavored spirit or wine cask. Though all of these styles quickly move off the racks, it's still good old-fashioned bourbon barrels that are in the highest demand.

"Make no mistake about it, bourbon aging is not going away. It's the most used barrel in craft brewing right now," Gill says.

Of course, that demand, along with an increase in breweries and distilleries seeking used barrels, has led to occasional shortages, and barrel makers are often having trouble keeping up with their orders.

"A lot of bourbon barrels are being shipped overseas for tequila, for rum, for scotch whiskey," Gill says. "About half, if not more, have been shipped out of the country. Domestically, here in the U.S. and in Canada, we have to pay more because of that. Coopers are struggling to keep up with the demand for new oak -- there’s been such a rise in wine-making and craft distilling, which requires new oak. A lot of clients have had to go to used barrels because they can't get affordable new oak barrels. A lot of coopers already have contracts or orders in place and can't take on new customers."

All of that makes for a heady investment for brewers seeking to make a great barrel-aged beer.

According to Megan Pruim, Marketing Coordinator for Saugatuck Brewing Co., a single barrel can cost $200 or more and each one takes up significantly more space to store than a standard keg. Though that hasn't stopped Saugatuck from investing as much money and space as they can for aging its beers.

"Right now with our small building, we can do up to 75 or 80 (barrels) at a time and we have as many going as we can at all times," Pruim says.

Of course, the barrels on hand are constantly changing, as each beer is aged for a different amount of time, with new batches being added to storage and older beers being removed on a fairly constant rotation.

"We have a double IPA that we do every now and again and that's only in a barrel for a month and a half but we'll do Old Ales that can go for around 16 months," Pruim says.

"Of course, it gets to a point where a beer has all of the barrel characteristics it will take on. If you leave it in longer it's basically just wasted time," Pruim says. "It will start to have negative effects if it sits altogether way too long. If it's a much lighter body beer compared to a big imperial stout, those light-body beers pick up on the flavors very fast. It's a wild thing, though, because you don't always know how long it's going to take."

Though actual barrel time is often an unknown when the process begins, Boatyard, for one, never ages its beers more than three weeks, regardless of style.

"We want the beer to stand on its own, and to just be accentuated by what we can pull out of the barrel," Steele says. "I think there is great disservices to a beer that you bourbon age so long that it becomes a bourbon forward beer to the point where it loses the essence of what the beer was. When people ask me about barrel-aging I say it still has to be a beer, just enhanced by the barrel." 

That's where good old fashioned tasting comes into play. Beer and cider makers alike will often pull small samples from the barrels to see how their product is changing over time and to judge how well the barrel characteristics are blending with the beer or cider.

"As our cider ages in barrels we frequently take small samples and perform sensory analysis on the flavors and aromas that are developing over time," Seth Boeve, Head Cidermaker for Fennville's Virtue Cider says."Mostly there's a lot of sampling involved. As the barrels age, we start to lose some of the more intense oak-barrel forward notes and eventually it just become a vessel for malolactic fermentation(a process leading to the deacidification of hard apple cider."

Though Boeve does occasionally use bourbon barrels, as is the case with "The Mitten" which is aged in Heaven Hill barrels, Virtue more often than not will turn to new oak or wine casks when it wants to impart flavors on to its cider.

"The American oak barrels we use were made specifically for (our) use. Being first to use these barrels imparts a heavy oak, coconut, vanilla character to the cider in a short amount of time," Boeve says. Each of these barrels can be filled and drained up to seven times, a process called "turning".

"Even after five to seven turns these barrels are still imparting a very heavy oak profile," Boeve says. "These barrels are used primarily for 'Prince Hal' and a few other ciders that we’ve made in the past. 

"The French oak barrels that we use have several different starting points. Some came to us from wineries out in California, while others are from wineries in France. Primarily these barrels are used to impart some of the characteristics of the wine that was previously in the barrel, as well as allowing us to capture and utilize some of the native terroir from that region."

Finding the barrel that will best enhance the beer or cider is the primary job of Gill and other barrel dealers.

"People are always asking for unique barrels. Brewers want to find the next great beer and the right barrel to age it in," Gill says.

Occasionally brokers will acquire wholly unique products which will often lead to some pretty extraordinary beers.

"Our barrel broker was able to get a Wheat Whiskey Barrel from Washington that was used to age maple syrup," Steele says. "What's really cool, is when we got the barrel there was literally a quarter pound of maple sugar in chunks on the outside. And it's not just normal maple sugar, its Wheat Whiskey Maple Sugar. We have a nice Irish dry porter that we put into it."

Following the Irish Porter, named "True North 432," after the building the brewery is housed in, Boatyard once again used the maple bourbon barrels to age a Farmhouse Pear Saison, which was on tap at Central City Tap House during Kalamazoo Beer Week.

"We'd never done a farmhouse ale in a whiskey barrel before so we thought, 'right, let's just roll the dice,' and luckily it turned out really well," Steele says.

That desire for experimentation and the consumer demand for unique and complex beers that has led to a rapid rise in barrel-aged beers and ciders. Though just because the demand is there, doesn't necessarily mean that production levels will satisfy every beer drinker, and that in itself is part of the charm.

"The fact that most barrel-aged beers are rare has a lot to do with it. The more hype the beer gets, if it's tough to find, then more people tend to want it," Pruim says.

Barrel-aged beers can retail for anywhere between $6 for a 12 oz. bottle all the way up to very limited 22 oz. bottles fetching in the triple digits on beer trading and collecting message boards. With eager consumers happily paying those prices, the trend for aged products won't slow down anytime soon.

"People are treating larger format bottles of craft beer like wine. They're willing to spend eight dollars, twelve dollars and up for quality craft beer," Gill says.

And they're also willing to wait for these beers and ciders to mature, proving that even when demand is high, patience is still a virtue. 

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.
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