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Barrels II: What’s the point?

Continuing last week’s discourse about barrel-aged beers the thought occurred to me I hadn’t bothered to mention why we even care. It’s not the the story behind any of these beers that matters first, but what’s in the glass. Some you would call spectacular, but there’s good reason to appreciate beers that gain extra complexity, nuance, structure, texture, etc. from wood without romping directly to spectacular.

You can’t polish a turd

If you’re not familiar with this term from my Midwestern youth you can probably figure out the meaning. Barrel-aging does not make a bad beer good. It does not necessarily make a good beer better, and may even make it worse.

Case in point: A few months after Goose Island introduced Bourbon County Stout in 1995 we were at Abita’s brewpub in Abita Springs, La., and they had Dickel Dog on tap (a draft-only experiment). It was something akin to a regular-strength brown ale aged in George Dickel bourbon barrels. Bourbon flavors totally overwhelmed the base beer. A beer that was likely perfectly good going into the barrel was, to my taste, no longer enjoyable.

And then there are the beers that were not particularly good going into wood . . .

So start with good beer

Think it’s chance that the two versions of Lost Abbey Angel’s Share (one from bourbon barrels, the other from brandy barrels) are the top two rated barley wines at Rate Beer? Or perhaps that the beers that went into the barrels were pretty exceptional.

BrewDog ParadoxAnother example would be Paradox from Scottish micro BrewDog. First shipments of BrewDog beers are due in the U.S. at the end of the month.

In less than a year BrewDog has grabbed attention for beers across the spectrum — both malt- and hop-centric &#151 and a certain attitude. “They’d be comfortable in San Diego,” one British judge at the Great American Beer Festival said.

For instance, the label for Punk IPA reads, “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate the depth, character and quality of this premium craft brewed beer.” And, “Just back back to drinking your mass marketed, bland, cheaply made watered down lager, and close the door behind you.”

To create Paradox, founders James Watt and Martin Dickie age a strong stout (Rip Tide, not quite a strong at 8% abv, won “Best Imperial Stout” in the Beers of the World competition) in whisky casks from Duncan Taylor.

The beers spend four to six months in wood. “Some types of casks instill the flavors quicker than others, we constantly monitor them and decide when they are ready,” Watt explained via e-mail. The version I had was aged in Islay casks, and some drinkers may find the intense blast of smoke, peat and even a bit of iodine startling when compared to beer from bourbon barrels.

But if you like distinctive Scotch whisky such as Laphroaig or Ardbeg then you’ll find that the stout rounds the whisky flavors left in the barrels and vice versa, creating something altogether new.

Finding balance (with wood)

So you see it can take a beer of some heft to stand up to the intensity of barrels that once held spirits. That’s not the direction every brewer chooses to go. For instance, Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing near Boston lets barrels that once held bourbon dry out, then dehydrates them to avoid an impression of “heat” that can come with spirits.

Anyway, the DRAFT and Imbibe stories were about how brewers are finding flavors never previously associated with beer and there’s no need to repeat all of that here.

Instead a little more from Matt Trevisan, the winemaker at Linne Calodo Winery who helped set the blends for Firestone 10 and Firestone 11, because it’s a chance to look down another road available to brewers.

Trevisan was discussing how tannins from wood add to mouthfeel and the decisions that go into choosing a level of toast (that’s barrel talk) when he explained the idea of “dressing up the wine.”

Three months in wood will do that. “It jumps out of the mouth, the aromatics at the start and the impression at the finish,” he said. “It’s shorter in structure, but it jumps.”

That changes after six months in a barrel. “You’ll think that you’ve over-oaked it,” he said. “Then by 12 to 15 months it will integrate and soften. The impression of wood won’t be as strong.”

A lot to learn.

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11 Responses to Barrels II: What’s the point?

  1. Matt January 15, 2008 at 9:12 am #

    so true..and on the flipside, you can take a great beer and ruin it by not using care in aging said beer(experience speaking here). When you discover a gem of a bbl aged beer, appreciate the effort that went into it. I used to think it was hard to make mistakes bbl aging. Wrongo.

  2. Eric Delia January 15, 2008 at 9:39 am #

    Paradox actually sounds very enticing, myself being a Scotch lover and a big fan of Islay. I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for beers with a peaty, smoky essence to them, mainly from Scotch barrel-aging. For the most part, I’ll give pretty much any aged offering a go.

    To be honest though, I’ve come across some pretty horrid barrel-aged concoctions, and to be fair, some really great ones as well. I think the key is not, as you mentioned, overwhelming the base beer (provided that it’s any good to begin with). I had the Bourbon barrel-aged Bell’s Third Coast recently and was not a big fan. If I want parching oak, I’ll bite a tree; if I want bourbon, I’ll buy a bottle. I don’t mean to single any particular beer out, and love Bell’s, but I was let down with this one like many others I expected to be great.

    With many of these, I’m asking that same question: what’s the point?

  3. Alan January 15, 2008 at 9:41 am #

    It is also important to remember that beer on the wood is a commonplace except for the last 40 years. Beers of all strengths are quite capable of being improved or even just defined by the time it spends on the wood whether 18 days or 18 months. As with early homebrewing, it is always easier to handle the sorts of bigger fuller beers to ensure the brewer’s challenges are best accomodated. In any case, the lighter and more sessionable the craft beer, the more careful the brewer must be. This is no different with the right selection of the barrel and the use of that barrel with any particular beer.

  4. Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2008 at 10:00 am #

    In fact, Alan, with a few exceptions (like the Belgians), historically brewers went to great effort to keep barrels/wood from influencing the flavor of beers.

    That’s why today’s brewers could be described as wood pioneers.

  5. Alan January 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm #

    I wonder how much of that is true. In his 1970s text, David Line talks about the common nature of beer from the wood when he was younger and how he missed it. It may be that they wanted to keep out some tastes (such as souring) but were not concerned with others (such as mellowing). Remember – most of the claims to pioneering is not relating to wodden barrels but to long storage in previously used barrels. But, then again, I am especially suspect of claims to pioneering, as you can imagine, when they are made in relation to techniques that are hundreds of years old.

  6. Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2008 at 1:21 pm #

    A few sources:

    – Dr. Paul Farnsworth, who began working in in breweries in his hometown of Burton-on-Trent when he was 16. Last week, while drinking Firestone Walker beer, we discussed the days when he was involved maintaining a “Burton Union.” The goal was to pass on no wood character.
    – Bill Vollmar, recently retired archivist at Anheuser-Busch. During an off-the-wall discussion about A-B’s short-lived American Originals series in the mid 1990s.
    Martyn Cornell: Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

    That said, I’ve heard people refer to the wood firkins used by Samuel Smith and describe a wood flavor. Maybe that’s what Line was talking about.

    Additionally, I don’t know of any American brewers who refer to wood-aging per se as pioneering. That’s a phrase off the top of my head.

  7. Alan January 15, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    I know. I was just nipping it in the bud! 😉

    I realize that barrels were sometimes tarred and also the passing of beer through a wooden union was different than the storage of it or dispensing from it. But there is a difference between the goal of passing on no flavours and the perfection. It would seem reasonable that there were characteristics conveyed. Plus, with early porter at least, was not the tang imparted from the repeated use of the massive wooden holding barrels?

  8. Alan January 15, 2008 at 2:18 pm #

    And just so that you will know I am not just a kook but in fact a student in search of knowledge, have a look at the website for the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood:

    “After a few years, realising that metal casks were rapidly replacing wooden ones, the Society decided to relax its principles accordingly. Nowadays only about a dozen breweries use wooden casks at all, and the SPBW is more concerned with the contents than the container, which we accept makes little or no difference to the taste of the beer.”

  9. Alan January 15, 2008 at 2:31 pm #

    …and what about “stock” anyway?

  10. Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2008 at 4:13 pm #

    Alan. My apologies, but we’ve been having two parallel conversations.

    I’ve been talking about the influence of wood itself (tannins, coconut from American oak, etc.) and excluding “critters.” Simply because because my conversations with brewers have been focused on what is new.

  11. Alan January 15, 2008 at 7:04 pm #

    Oh, I started with wood and moved on. I am “showing my work” as my grade 8 math teacher called it. And I am doing it all over your blog! Yuk.

    I think, though, that more could be done to differentiate the two concepts so that it was clearer.

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