The History of Beer Barrels
Wooden barrels, usually made of oak, were once the standard container for beer as well as wine in Europe. Craftsmen discovered that because wood was porous, if it could be dried to a low moisture content before the pieces (called staves) were bent around iron hoops over a fire into a barrel shape, adding the liquid inside would cause the wood to swell, effectively sealing it. In such a cylindrical vessel, a great amount of liquid could be stored and also easily rolled about—a significant advantage in shipping and trade. Moreover, such hardwood barrels were very study and resistant to rough handing, unlike wineskins. It’s been said that the wine barrel was the most highly regarded Western invention by the Chinese.
The idea that such a beverage container could positively influence the flavor of its contents, however, was a realization that evolved slowly. According to Pascal Chatonnet, a researcher at the Enology Institute at the University of Bordeaux (The Barrel and the Wine, 1994), it was not until the end of the 17th century in Europe that wood began to be recognized as a major element in the quality of wine. In fact, the biggest use in France of oak prior to that was for shipbuilding, and it was actually the iron industry that first pressured the French government to guarantee a constant supply of wood products from its forests for smelting fires in the 1880s.
In old England, where oak barrels were also commonly used for storing beer, most were lined with pitch to both seal them against leaks and to prevent the wood from harming beer flavor. This was particularly important in shipping, as in the long sea voyages of beers like India pale ale. As in France, it was only later that brewers discovered that the flavor of oak could also enhance the taste of beer.
In Belgium, a crossroads between winemakers in France and the brewers of England and northern Europe, brewers always seemed to have a different take on barrels. Perhaps owing to the Burgundian technique of fermenting wines such as Chardonnay in small wine barrels, Belgians began making their beer this way (larger oak vats had long been in use for both beer and wine). The smaller barrels proved far better at maintaining the wild yeasts and other bacteria that have defined the different Belgian beer styles, without adding much in the way of woody flavors. Rather than protect the beer from these flavors—anathema to most brewers then and since—the use of barrels encouraged it, particularly for the sour lambic beers. Brewers also often added fruit and spices directly to the barrel to encourage further fermentation and flavor development.
A New Use for Bourbon Barrels in America
In America, oak barrels were also the standard beverage container until the late 1800s, when steel kegs and tanks were introduced. It was the spirits industry that first popularized the use of barrels, both for rye whiskey and for rum. To guarantee the health of the American cooperage business, a law was written (which still in force today) that bourbon barrels can be used only once in the production of this unique American whiskey. Many used bourbon barrels were subsequently shipped to Scotland for the production of Scotch whisky, still a common practice.
This wide availability of used bourbon barrels first brought about the barrel-aged beer phenomenon in the United States. Beginning in the early 1990s, brewer Greg Hall of the Goose Island Brewery in Chicago began experimented by adding his imperial stout to used bourbon barrels he purchased from the Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky. After its initial fermentation in stainless steel, the beer was aged for about 100 days in the barrels. The resulting Bourbon County Stout (11% ABV) picked up vanilla, tannin and burnt wood flavors from the barrels, as well as some residual whiskey notes. This beer was awarded a gold medal for wood- and barrel-aged beer at the World Beer Cup in Seattle in 2006.
Many American breweries are now using bourbon barrels for a variety of beers, mostly porters, stouts, strong ales and barley wines. With their heavy char and the vanillin flavors of American oak, as well as the maple accents and corn-based sweetness of bourbon whisky, these barrels can add additional depth of flavor to many dark beers.
One of the first barrel beers to hit the West Coast craft beer scene was North Coast Anniversary X, named for the brewery’s 10th anniversary in 1999. This was a huge, sweet barleywine-style beer, with lots of raisiny flavor richness from both the complex malt bill, but also the rich maple and vanilla notes of bourbon barrels. Although it has oxidized and faded somewhat in nearly nine years, the beer still packs a punch (10% ABV).
At Deschutes Brewery in Bend, OR, brewers have now produced two vintages of The Abyss, an imperial stout made with both American and Belgian ale yeasts and an addition of licorice and cherry bark chips and partially aged in bourbon barrels. An 11% ABV, it’s giant of a beer—black, very dense and very full on the palate with the taste of roasted malt, licorice, vanilla and wood tannins, and a long, surprisingly smooth finish. This beer won a gold medal at the GABF in 2007.
But bourbon barrels aren’t just used for stouts and barley wines these days. In Stevenson, WA, Walking Man Brewing Co. makes a bourbon barrel-aged version of its Homo Erectus Double IPA called My Old Kentucky Homo. Alan Sprints, owner/brewer at Hair of the Dog in Portland, OR continues to amaze beer lovers with his barrel-aged brews, including super-hoppy Fred from the Wood (aged in new American oak) and Adam from the Wood (bourbon barrels). His legendary Dave was also aged in a bourbon barrel. At 29% ABV, this was probably the strongest beer ever made in the United States, although Sprints used an eisbock freezing technique to produce the higher alcohol.
Rum barrels, which are generally much harder to come by, are the wood of choice for the Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. of Pleasantville, NY and its Smoke from the Oak, a barrel-aged American-style porter. The Draught House Pub & Brewery in Austin, TX makes Rum Barrel Red. Other brewers have used rum-soaked oak chips to flavor their beers, such as Walking Man’s Ho Ho Homo Erectus and a rare cask of Jolly Roger strong ale made by Maritime Pacific Brewing Co. in Seattle.
Wine barrels have also become popular for aging beer. Fish Brewing Co. of Olympia, WA began a barrel program for some of its strongest beers in the late 90s, using a variety of used wine barrels made of various kinds of wood, including French, American and even Hungarian oak. The results were stunning, especially for the 1999 and 2000 Poseidon’s Imperial Stout, a Chateau Latour of a beer. Unfortunately, the brewery later discontinued using barrels because of contamination problems, and now only uses oak chips for its Old Woody strong ale, which won a gold medal at the GABF in 2007.
But the making of barrel-aged beer is not limited to small American craft breweries. Even the largest brewery in the United States, Anheuser–Busch, has produced barrel-aged beer. For the past two years, the company has released Winter’s Cask Bourbon Ale as a winter seasonal brew. This amber beer is aged in bourbon barrels with the addition of vanilla beans to provide even more “oak” character.