Rediscovering Barrel-Aging


Beer and wood share a complex and fascinating relationship that yields delicious results in the hands of an experienced brewer. Barrel-aged beers are the new stars of the craft beer world because consumers are becoming increasingly excited about the many layers of flavor that unfold on their palates. The truth is brewers are just as excited about making them because the beers challenge their knowledge, creativity and technical abilities. The possibilities for flavors seem infinite when you consider all the varieties of beers out there that might be aged in different kinds of barrels, each imparting its own unique flavor characteristics. It’s really only in the last decade that the craft beer industry has discovered the pleasures of barrel-aging. Or, shall we say, “rediscovered.”

Alcohol and wood have been spending time together for more than 2500 years, at least since crude buckets probably served as holding vessels in northern Europe’s Celtic territories. Prior to that, earthenware served to hold alcoholic beverages as we know from hieroglyphics and archeological evidence spanning from Europe to as far as China. As civilization’s metalwork techniques advanced, so did the ability to fashion more sophisticated wooden vessels, namely barrels. Written records from as far back as the fifth century BCE reveal the presence of wine barrels on the Euphrates. In Italy, Roman artists etched into Trajan’s Column (113 AD) a picture of barrels on ships.

The Dark Ages of Europe (starting in roughly the 5th or 6th century) were not quite so dark; beer brewing techniques developed steadily and that was certainly aided by brewing and conditioning vessels made of wood. Beer brewing shifted to monasteries and the beverage meanwhile grew more mainstream. In the early second millennium, beer brewing was becoming a relatively large operation in many parts of Europe, and barrels notably allowed for the export of beer beyond the towns and villages where it was produced, thus further increasing its appreciation.

Capitalism developed rapidly from the 16th century. Beer was a booming business and so was barrel-making or “cooperage.” This was no longer something a carpenter or handyman did, but a very distinct and important profession. To be fair, barrels were also used to hold wine, an array of food products, and many other goods, creating universal demand. Cooperage thus evolved into a highly organized, regulated and politicized industry. Some forest regions from which wood for barrels was harvested even received special government protections.

As the centuries marched on, the brewing industry better understood how the qualities of wood influenced their final product. Breweries tweaked and improved their brewing equipment, which still depended on wood for fermentation and conditioning vessels. They knew which kinds of wood they wanted and how best to source it. Brewers adjusted their techniques to account for wood. Unique styles and traditions were born. Many of those we still enjoy today.

The industrial revolution in Europe, which spread to America and Japan, set in motion changes that overhauled much of the brewing industry (and entire national economies). Many of those unique styles and traditions, often hand-crafted, small-batch and confined to specific localities, became greatly marginalized. Machines were invented to manufacture barrels. Some breweries became bustling factories. Then bottles became the standard for packaging.

It was not an overnight disappearance of wood by any means, but the 20th century introduced more trends that certainly ensured its further decline. Advances in stainless steel production gave rise to kegs. Steel became the preferred material for conditioning tanks. That was connected, too, with growing modern concerns about sanitation. Wood harbors bacteria and other ‘wild’ microorganisms. Even if those produce sour or funky flavors that in the right conditions are deemed appropropriate for some of the unique, traditional styles mentioned previously, the modern brewer wanted nothing of these fickle forces working on the beer. Stability (and production efficiency) became paramount. The big breweries took over.

Craft brewing in America dawned fifty years ago with Fritz Maytag’s purchase of Anchor Brewing Company, and was given further momentum with the success of breweries like Sierra Nevada in the 1980s. In England in the early 1970s, consumers demanded more variety and a return to some traditions (like cask-ale), giving rise to the Real Ale movement. Still, none of this meant a wholesale embrace of wood-aging again, at least not immediately.

Meanwhile, other parts of Europe had hardly abandoned wood in brewing. In particular, sour beers aged in foeders and wooden barrels never lost their appeal in Belgium (see our feature on sours in issue #23). Of note, Rodenbach continues to mature its beer in 294 oak foeders. For decades in England’s Burton-upon-Trent, breweries had been employing Burton Unions, which were circulating fermentation systems devised of rows of barrels. Bankruptcies and consolidation nearly ended the practice, culminating with Bass Brewery retiring its system in the 1980s. Marston’s, however, continues to use the system for its Pedigree.

In America, New Belgium was arguably one leader in the renaissance of using wood in breweries. Unsurprisingly, brewmaster Peter Bouckaert worked at Rodenbach in the late 1980s before joining New Belgium in 1996. That next year, New Belgium began aging some of their beers in oak barrels to which they added natural souring yeasts and bacteria they collected–a “zoo,” Bouckaert calls it. The brewery then added four big foeders for further aging, resulting in their beer La Folie (“the folly”). It went on to win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival before there was even a category for sour beers. America’s craft brewing industry took note.

There were others, of course. Firestone Walker (see issue #24) has been using a modified Burton system since 1996 for its Double Barrel Ale–a process different from that of using wood to sour beers, but notable still for its embrace of wood and the mild oaky, vanilla flavors it imparts. In California’s wine country, Russian River Brewing Company’s Vinnie Cilurzo began filling used wine barrels with sour beers in 1999. The brewery’s beers set a standard for quality and are still some of the most sought-after in America’s craft beer scene.

Most of these modern renaissance brewers were following rich precedent. Sour beers, funky farmhouse ales… essentially, beers fermented with mixed cultures that thrive in wood have been the historic norm. “Clean beer” is a very recent phenomenon. Further enhancing sour beer character with flavors that a used wine barrel could impart was an interesting step in a new direction. Putting beer in American whiskey barrels to extract some of that flavor, however, was an exciting leap into new territory that is still being explored.

That new direction owes much of its growing legacy to Greg Hall, son the Goose Island Beer Company’s founder, John Hall. As early as 1992, he filled several used Jim Beam barrels with beer and served them at the Great American Beer Festival. Today, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is a classic of the category and the brewery runs the country’s largest barrel-aging program in Chicago, with over 20,000 barrels! Credit is also due Founders (issue #25) for elevating the category with its KBS (formerly called Kentucky Bourbon Stout). Experimentation began for them in 2003 and that beer has since become one of the most celebrated on beer-rating websites.

Today, a whopping 85.5% of America’s 4000+ craft breweries have some kind of barrel-aging program. Some, like The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, California specialize exclusively in barrel-aging. Fal Allen, brewmaster of Anderson Valley Brewing Company, is even fermenting beers inside used wine barrels, not simply aging them. Others are exploring spirits barrels like those for rum and gin. Or stuffing the barrels with fruit before adding beer. The use of foeders is growing steadily, too, and there is even an American foeder-making company these days, Foeder Crafters of America. As New Belgium’s Bouckaert quipped, expressing the prevailing attitude, “If you’re not barrel-aging, who are you?”

In Japan, though, who are you if you are barrel-aging? Few breweries have explored it though we feel that the industry is on the cusp of change. Kiuchi has been a notable pioneer. For over a decade, Kiuchi has been aging its Japanese Classic Ale in cedar casks traditionally used for sake. Its XH (a Belgian strong ale), meanwhile, is aged in shochu barrels. A handful of other breweries have experimented with whiskey barrels, including Baird Beer, Shiga Kogen, Swan Lake, Minoh, Johana, Iwate Kura, Shonan, Helios and Yo-ho. There are others. Most recently, AJB has begun a regular barrel-aged beer subscription program. Swan Lake has even been aging barley wine in sake barrels. Coedo’s collaborations with Coronado and with Stone and Garage Project have been barrel-aged, too.

The possibilities in Japan are enormous. The country of course has a distinct history of using wood in brewing because of sake. Coopers for the sake industry have been quickly disappearing (as very few sake breweries still use wood), but it would seem their skills could be repurposed to produce foeders, which are not unlike the large oke once widely used for fermentation. Many craft breweries in Japan also produce sake so if they commissioned barrels, they could see them through multiple use. Japan’s burgeoning wine industry could provide barrels for sour beers. And of course Japan’s whiskey has become the most celebrated in the world. Barrels from the most prestigious of those programs are nearly impossible to come by, but surging demand from the craft beer industry could change the situation. Then, too, there are fledgling craft rum and gin programs in Japan. Those barrels could provide further diverse–and delicious–offerings.

Barrel-aging programs at breweries take years to develop so Japan may have to wait for robust domestic programs. When they emerge, which we are sure they will, we suspect they will be unique and rather good. At least there’s plenty of excellence to sip on from around the world while we wait. The wait won’t be so bad.

by Ry Beville

This article is the first part of a two-issue feature on barrel-aging. Please read the next issue for our grand finale. This feature is just a teaser!

Much of the background information for this article comes from Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide, authored by Dick Cantwell and Peter Bouckaert, and published by the Brewers Association in America.

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This article was published in Japan Beer Times #27 (Summer 2016) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.