Monday, April 12, 2010

Barrel Aged Beer a New Idea? (rant)

Mayflower Brewing BarrelsThe rise in barrel aged beer has been one of the most notable trends in American craft beer over the last 15 years. These days barrel aged beer is mainstream enough that even Budweiser is getting into the act with Winter's Bourbon Cask Ale (which according to the label is aged on, not in, bourbon barrels) and a few breweries, like Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, oak age all of their beers. Among internet beer nerds many of the highest rated beers on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer see some time in barrels that previously held a spirit or wine (each site has just under half of the top 50 rated beers barrel aged and that doesn't even include the beers aged on oak cubes or chips).  The most highly prized barrel aged beers are generally either strong (and often dark) or sour, these three characteristics can help to fend off the gradual oxidation that results during barrel aging.

Some people will tell you that this oak aging idea is an invention of American craft brewers (or homebrewers), and that before 1992 (or so) any barrels used to store aging or fermenting beer were coated on the inside with brewer's pitch to prevent wood flavor and oxygen from getting into the beer.  An alternative history from Innis and Gunn claims that their bourbon barrel aged beer "Is unique to us, a world first!" despite having been brewed for the first time in 2002... a full decade after Goose Island first brewed Bourbon County Stout in 1992.

The first, and most obvious, counterexample to the America First Theory is the use of unlined oak vessels to age/ferment most of the great sour ales of Belgium.  Traditional Lambic and Flanders Red producers have long relied on wooden barrels and tanks to age their beers.  These would never have been lined to prevent wood-beer contact because the use of oak here is specifically for its oxygen permeability and microbe harboring characteristics.  These breweries go to great lengths to clean off any impermeable beerstone buildup on the oak vessel before they fill it back up.  This cleaning ensures that each batch of beer gets the same wood contact as the previous batch (Rodenbach scrapes the inside of their large tuns by hand, and Cantillon agitates barrels filled with hot water and metal chains, while others just use a high-pressure hot water spray).

Bullfrog Brewing Barrel CellarFine, fine, sour beers are often a special case, they are the loophole answer for just about every brewing best practice.  However, according to Wild Brews one of the Lambic brewers' favorite barrel sources are the Czech Pilsner breweries that still ferment/age some of their beer in the traditional fashion (Pilsner Urquell Kvasnicovy for example).  Once the barrels get too old for pilsner (not enough wood character?!) the breweries sell them to breweries that want barrels without much character left. 

As these rants with a historical slant often go I'll turn to Ron Pattinson for some information I couldn't dig up on my own.  I sent him an email asking about the history behind barrel aging beer a few years back and he related the story of obtaining barrels from Guinness back in the 1970s that were not pitch lined.  So that makes three examples from different brewing traditions across Europe, more than enough to show that oak aged beers are anything but an invention of American craft brewers in the 1990 (although I will admit that it was Americans who popularized barrel forward beers).

With all of that said I have read that there were plenty of breweries that did use pitch lined barrels, especially for shipping beers long distances (like in the case of the original India Pale Ale), so while today some people may enjoy adding a bit of oak character to their IPAs there probably isn't much historical basis for it.  History aside, I think any unnecessary aging (especially with exposure to oxygen in a barrel) for a hoppy beer is a waste of time and hop character, but that's just me.

If you have any suggestions for rant topics please post a comment or send me an email.  For example, Chris Colby, the editor of BYO Magazine, recently complained to me about the use of the term "infected" to refer to an unintentionally sour beer (he made the excellent point that it is organisms that get infected, a beer should be called contaminated).


dmoore2 said...

This is an interesting post. One thing I'll note, though, is that the trend today in the US (possibly started by GI in '92?) is in the emphasis on the actual spirit character from the barrels' previous inhabitants (Brandy, Bourbon, Wine, etc.), rather than just the oak. It's an interesting twist, and I'd be interested in knowing whether that aspect specifically has documented historical precedent.

Anonymous said...

Re. "infected" vs "contaminated".

Wouldn't "infested" be the better
one.... :-)


Dan said...

I have been arguing with people on for years about the term infected and its misuse for 'CONTAMINATED' beer. It really bothers me, especially as a molecular biologist who used to work with truly infectious materials.

Kevin LaVoy said...

That Innis and Gunn page is hilarious! "The beer was then tasted by industry experts and scored an unheard of 9 out of 9!" I cannot stop laughing about that. 9 out of 9 indeed. Since it's easy to make up scores: I tasted some of my homebrew over the weekend, and I feel that it scored 11 out of 11!

Pseu said...

"Infected" has problems, but "contaminated" leaves something to be desired. Specifically, it doesn't get across that the beer doesn't just contain an undesired substance, it contains an undesired living organism.

"Infested" actually isn't a bad compromise.

Dyan said...

A well-reasoned fact based argument doesn't count as a rant, Mike :-)

Matt said...

Hey Mike, I'm a microbiologist by profession and I feel like its swimming up stream to direct people to stop using the term "infected" -- I agree that they are all just cultures, and infection in general is a terrible term on par with the term "germ", but it gets a point across in a cartoony way. I often will refer to all cultures of yeast or active fermentations as "controlled infections" when explaining the process to new comers or people without a biological background, getting more technical as the process continues.

As far as your "rant" about barrels go, I have never used a barrel (one of those unfortunate people that do not have enough friends to make 60 gallons worth of beer) so I don't have much experience personally but I have noticed (rather annoyed) that the "best beers" or most "buzzed beers" have been moving toward barrel aged. Last night I had the barrel aged Unearthly IPA and it was horrid. I hated it. There are a few style of beer that do not benefit at all from exposure to air, wood or time. IPAs is definitely one of them.

If you need someone to throw in 5 gallons into your next 60 gallon barrel project shoot me an email.

Aaron said...

I think part of the reason for the relative success of barrel-aged beers on rating sites is that most breweries aren't going to bother barrel-aging a beer they don't consider special in some way. It's not so much a way to make a beer different as it is a way to turn a good beer up to 11. It'd be interesting to try some of those beers non-barrel-aged and see how they compare.

Oblivious said...

Also remember the likes of Rodenbach and Guinness tuns had a much more massive beer surface area to wood compartment to a bourbon barrel