A lot depends on the type of barrel used to age the beer. The latest trend has been for breweries to purchase oak barrels previously used for chardonnay or even whiskey and using them for aging beer. You can imagine the kinds of flavors the beer might pick up: warm oak and vanilla from the chardonnay barrels; smoke and caramel from the bourbon!
But we think the kind of beer going into these barrels has to be carefully selected. Not every beer works well with the flavors coming from the wood, and we've definitely sampled some of these: sickly sweet, overpowering smokiness, and/or weirdly fruity. Bleck.
On top of this, the previously used barrels also contribute new bacterias to the fermentation process, which can result in unanticipated flavors - sometimes good, sometimes bad - in the finished beer. Even a carefully selected beer can still turn out too funky to drink. We imagine that as brewers become more familiar with the particular flora and fauna coming from, say, a Kentucky bourbon barrel, they will be better able to craft their beer to match.
But when it's done right, a barrel-aged beer is a fantastic thing. The various elements are perfectly balanced and every sip seems to reveal a different flavor combination. It's still distinctly beer, but with added depth and punch. We think these beers have special potential for food pairing.
Most barrel-aged beers are still being brewed in very small batches, so your best chance of finding one is checking out the small craft brewers in your area. Keep an eye out for them at beer festivals, too. As brewers refine this new offering, we're hoping to see a lot more barrel-aged beers on the market!
Here are two that we've enjoyed recently:
• Excelsior Brute from Ithaca Beer Company (Ithaca, NY) - A wild-fermented sour beer aged in oak
• Bourbon-Barrel Aged Porter from Elevator Brewing Company (Columbus, OH) - a dark, coffee porter aged 4 months in whiskey barrels
Any barrel-aged beers to recommend?
Related: The Real Truth About Skunked Beer