Barrel Aging

It seems to come up more and more about barrel aged this and barrel aged that.  Barrel aging is the new IPA of late (That sounds horrible doesn’t it?).  Usually when you hear about barrel aged something it pertains to some over the top stout that a brewery thought needed something even more, so why not age it in a bourbon barrel for several months.  And on that note there are a few highly chased beers that are barrel aged.  It gives them a bit more than the non-barrel aged versions.

But I can hear you right now.  This is our month of sours, why are we wasting time talking about barrel aged beers.  The reason for this is because long before we had stainless steel to do our fermentation in, wooden barrels were the norm.

Stainless is so much easier to not only clean but also sanitize. It also is not permeable. When you think of most modern breweries and their use of wooden barrels, most of them only use the barrel once after they have made their special beer. Stainless steel also allows for forced carbonation. The more durable metal can withstand higher pressures than wooden barrels.

Coopers (the name of those who build wooden barrels) are now considered an artisnal trade.  There are few of these craftsman left.  Aside from the skills required to make wooden casks, stainless steel can be mass produced instead of waiting for a forest to repopulate.  But these reasons only tell us a bit of why there was a switch, completely skipping the importance of wooden barrels in the creation of sour beers.

Barrels used for Paw Paw Brewing’s Red Barn Sour

Long before the advancement of stainless fermentation vessels and kegs, pretty much everything was done in wood and copper.  Copper fermentation vessels had many of the same properties of stainless but still a high cost.  Wood at the time was cheaper and more prevalent but it had some of its own drawbacks.

Microbes are able to make their home in the wood and set up shop.  Wood is also permeable allowing the beers to breathe, all the sugar that beer yeast is unable to devour is now open to microbes that have a more versatile digestive system.  These traits were a hindrance for the average brewer and needed to be taken into account for the freshness of their beers.  For those who make sour beers this is a bonus.

All of the beers at Jolly Pumpkin’s production
brewery In Dexter Michigan are barel aged

Instead of using barrels only once, when making sour beers, the brewer will continuously use the barrels allowing the proliferation of microbes to multiply.  This gives the barrel its own unique qualities.  This means a bit more work in that blending is important for consistent quality between batches of beer.

Blending the beers aging in different barrels is a requirement when a brewery is making sours.  The qualities of wooden barrels mean the beers in each one will be at different stages than the others around them, even when they were from the same original batch of beer.

Sour beers are gaining popularity but the concept is still something that most drinkers are not quite ready for.  As our pallettes stretch a bit more, we find our desire for the unusual flavors grows.

Time for a pint…


6 thoughts on “Barrel Aging

  1. Oddly enough, I find barrel making fascinating. It's certainly almost a lost art. The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil first introduced me to how barrels are made, and now your post makes me want to read more on the subject.

  2. The art of Cooperage is starting to come back. There is a new Cooperage in Napa and are training new craftsmen and are now supplying wine barrels to local wineries. I understand they do tours. I would love to go some time. Here is my question. How long is beer aged in a barrel? Just curiuous. 🙂

  3. Many times it depends on the beer. When we talk about sours, it takes a long time for the microbes to do their work. They are much slower than beer yeast. Lambics take anywhere from a year to three years to mature, spending that entire time in barrels. There are other barrels that are never emptied. The beer in these barrels is pulled out a little at a time and then replaced with fresh. These partial pulls are what are used in blending. The barrels don't leak as long as they are always filled (the pressure of the liquid ensures a tight fit).

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