America has a history of trying to one-up the rest of the world. Maybe it has something to do with our rebellious origins. Maybe that explains monster trucks, KISS and deep dish pizza. So it only makes sense that when the craft brewing revolution started more than 20 years ago it was driven by American brewers. Sure the Europeans refined brewing, but we amped it up.
First, we churned out huge, flavorful IPAs that completely transformed a 200-year-old British mainstay. Now, we have turned our attention to barrel-aged beer, a style seen on the European continent for a millennium.
The reason brewers are adding barrelaged beers to their repertoire at a rapid rate is simple: Cask aging beers allows unique flavor profiles to develop that are previously unheard of in brewing.
Part of the beauty of this style of aged beers is the unpredictability of it.
“When brewers decide to lay a beer down inside a barrel, they are taking a leap of faith. Each barrel is different and hence imparts a different flavor to the liquid inside,” says Alex Violette, brewer at Upslope Brewing. “If you are using a whiskey barrel, it depends on the type of spirit and char on the inside of the barrel, while wine barrels are thicker, which slows the process. You can sometimes end up with a completely different result than planned.”
Due to the variability of the finished product from each fermentation, the liquid the public drinks is often a blend of numerous beers to enhance certain flavors the brewers have identified. Each release is different from the last because, unlike the beers brewed in stainless tanks, it is impossible to perfectly replicate from batch to batch. It also explains the massive growth in barrel-aging programs in breweries today; it offers brewers a chance to flex their creative visions every brew they create.
“The possibilities are endless. Right now we primarily are using whiskey barrels with dark beers and wine barrels with sours,” Violette says. “But think about the other combinations out there: a Saison aged in rum barrels or an IPA in gin barrels. Who knows? That’s why most brewers I know are so excited about their burgeoning barrel programs.”
As more breweries jump in, the market for barrels is becoming tighter, resulting in barrel shops opening in hot spots across the country. Rocky Mountain Barrel Company in Denver sold more than 10,000 barrels last year.
“It’s very difficult to find whiskey barrels right now, so more brewers are trying different barrels,” says Jon Levy CFO of Rocky Mountain Barrel Company. “Everyone wants bourbon barrels and there simply aren’t enough to go around.”
Last year only one other category of beer (IPA) had more entrants at the Great American Beer Festival than barrel-aged beer, so it’s safe to assume we will see many more outlandish offerings from brewers appearing daily. Beer connoisseurs would not have it any other way.