Trendspotting: Barrel-aged beers

Barrel-aged beer

It’s one line in a two-page spread – so the impact won’t be the same as if Oprah were to declare her love for IPAs (headlines across the the country scream, “Hops Sales Soar Through The Ozone Layer”) – but the current BusinessWeek reports on The Food and Wine Classic in Apsen, Colo., calling it a leading indicator of food trends.

And those trends would be?

“We’ll be hearing a lot more about Spanish and Greek wine, unusual pairings such as wine with chocolate, hand-cured meats, and barrel-aged beer.”

Before you get too excited, let’s consider how much more – oh, just for instance – Miller Chill there is out there for us to buy than there is barrel-aged beer. Give your favorite better beer store a call. I’ll wait. And they had? Maybe some Rodenbach Grand Cru if you’re lucky. Perhaps Jolly Pumpkin La Roja? Less likely.

The Angel’s Share from Lost Abbey? They had that and you didn’t hang up the phone and get immediately in the car? Shame on you.

So where are these beers going to come from?

You read about barrel-aged beers, but how often do you see them? There were 87 entries in the wood- and barrel-aged categories at the Great American Beer Festival, and some other wood-aged beers entries in other categories (Belgian sour beers in particular).

One of the medalists was Wooden Hell from Flossmoor Station in Illinois. That’s brewer Matt Van Wyk up above. The photo is courtesy of Todd Ashman, formerly of Flossmoor Station and now at Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, Calif., who collected barrel shots from across the nation for a talk he gave last year at the National Hombrewers Conference. This one came from Flossmoor assistant brewer Andrew Mason.

You’ll notice his “barrel room” is on the small side. The city of Rio Rancho, N.M., will go through more Blue Moon White this weekend than those barrels would hold.

With four 60- and six 130-hectoliter foders New Belgium Brewing must have the largest wood capacity in the country. To the best of my knowledge, Lost Abbey Brewing in California is the next largest with 130 wine and spirits barrels, and many of those are waiting for beer. Brewery Tomme Arthur recently authored a delightful blog post about barrel filling season.

(A little background: Most wine barrels hold 225 liters, a little less than 60 gallons. A barrel of beer, the measure we use most often, equals 31 gallons. A barrel of beer will produce about 13.8 cases of 12-ounce bottles, or two kegs. A barrel of wine yields 25 cases of 750ml bottles – but of course that’s almost two barrels of beer.)

When Russian River Brewing’s production plant is up and running (yes, I need to write more about that) the barrel room will hold more than 325 wine barrels so RR could produce 560-plus beer barrels (31 gallons) a year. Given that some beers will age longer, keeping barrels filled takes times, and still other reasons, 400 to 500 barrels a year seems more likely. That’s half the production of your average brewpub – and we won’t see any of it until 2009.

So back to all those GABF entries. Brewers are interested. Heck, New Holland Brewing in Michigan has 50 wood barrels at work right now, and the barrel display at Upstream Brewing in Omaha will take your breath away.

The list goes on. Flossmoor is up to 12 barrels, Jolly Pumpkin continues to add barrels, Cambridge Brewing outside of Boston has a captivating barrel cellar. Maybe I should just post a bunch more barrel-room photos.

But we have still to go looking. Sprecher Brewing in Wisconsin sells (or sold, they may be gone) a wonderful Dopplebock aged in bourbon barrels, but produced only 389 of the one-liter bottles. New Holland just rolled out Moxie, a sour ale aged in wood and only 424 750ml bottles are available.

The same day that Lost Abbey released Cuvee de Tomme the brewery sold all 480 375ml bottles that will be available until the next bottling (in the fall). Obviously underpriced at $15 apiece.

Cheap by Aspen standards – and heaven forbid Oprah finds out about these barrel-aged beers.

12 thoughts on “Trendspotting: Barrel-aged beers”

  1. If barrel-aged beers really take off the commercial brewers will probably do what some wine makers do and age the beers in stainless steel and using oak staves or oak chips to simulate the oaking process. One recent example in Australia saw 7000 cases produced of a rum barrel porter using this method –

    To my mind calling it barrel-aged is misleading when they are merely simulating the effect of barrel aging. But I guess as in all things that is the difference between producing commercial and artisinal quantities.

    I thought the beer was quite good, though I found the rum and oak notes very obvious (and this was before I discovered it had been chipped), more than I would have expected from a barrel aged example.

  2. Thanks, Matt.

    I think that the barrels vs. chips will be one more part of the discussion about what you expect from craft beer.

    I hope that Chuck Hahn (Malt Shovel) is judging at the Great American Beer Festival this year. I talked to him last spring when he was beginning to experiment with the rum barrels. It looks to me as if the final beer is a blend with some beer from the barrels and some aged on chips.

  3. Just a head’s up but Captain Lawrence should be on your radar if you dig barrel aged brews.

    He’s also planning on putting the Smoked Porter in Port barrels.


    BTW…JW Lees “cheats” with their “barrel aged” Harvest Ales as well. As in they don’t use actual casks from the distiller but they recreate the stuff themselves. BOO!

  4. I work at Flying Dog Brewery and just had to chime in here. Don’t forget about our Barrel-Aged Gonzo Imperial Porter, which has gotten some very favorable reviews (and I think it’s awesome). And we’re just about ready to unveil our newest member of our barrel-aged Wild Dog brews in the next week or two, stay tuned for an official announcement.

  5. Loren – As long as a brewery is honest about the use of chips I’m not sure that is “cheating.”

    Beer in wood is not new, but considering what it adds to beer sort is. I had a fascinating conversation with a winemaker the other day about the importance of time in the barrel – how a wine that spends less time on wood may give the impression of spending more because the wood flavors aren’t as integrated.

    It comes down to what we taste. I admit that going in I’m expecting the barrel-aged to have an advantage. However I also know that Oak Aged Yeti from Great Divide is pretty darn good and that’s done on chips.

  6. Josh – There were what, 500 (750ml) bottles of the Barrel Gonzo?

    “Hand-cured meats” are probably easier to find … unfortunately.

  7. I’m pretty sure there were 5,000 (not 500) bottles of Barrel-Aged Gonzo. We kept about 500 to sell our of our tasting room, but the other 4,500 were sent out to distributors.

    Check with your local distributor about their availability – if you need to find out who that is in your area I can certainly look for you next week.

  8. Thanks, Josh. Brain malfunction on my part – 500 would a crazy small release.

    Still 4500 bottles for the public amounts to 375 12-bottle cases. Enough that those who really care should be able to find it, but still pretty rare and not nearly enough for Oprah-mania.

  9. Weyerbacher here in southeast PA (Easton, PA to be exact) has been doing some really neat things with wood aging as well. I’m not sure what your access to their products is like, but they are certainly well worth looking into should you have the opportunity.

  10. Hello barrel friendly folks,

    For those who care of numbers and such things, we here at Jolly Pumpkin are now up to 84 barrels, a 2000 L oak tun, a 1200 L, and a 1000 L. We hope to add more smaller barrels as the year goes forward and perhaps another 1000 or 2000L late in the year. We sold a little over 650 US BBL of oak aged beer in 2006 and hope to hit over 1000 for 2007. All wild and sour to one degree or another.

    $15 for 375 ml? I think I need to raise my prices!


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