In 1994, Chicagoans were treated to an extraordinary beer created to celebrate the 1,000th batch brewed at the Goose Island brewpub: Bourbon County Stout, an intense, black stout that brewer Greg Hall had aged in oak barrels fresh from the Jim Beam bourbon distillery.
Barrels were a marvel―durable and constructed with a remarkable precision that was perfected early and never really improved upon: the round circumference made rolling easier, and the bowed middle made them more maneuverable.
The following year, brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker sat in the Firestone Vineyard in central California, surrounded by family wine barrels, planning a new craft brewery that would be distinguished by the use of oak barrels to ferment their beer.
And in 1996, Belgian brewer Peter Bouckaert moved from renowned Rodenbach brewery in Flanders to New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado, bringing with him the traditional skills to manipulate the souring and conditioning of beer in oak barrels.
Now, 15 years on, American brewers are eagerly exploring the possible interactions between maturing beer, permeable wood and microorganisms. The popularity of “wood-aged” beer rivals the growth of double and imperial styles of a few years ago. At the medal competitions at the Great American Beer Festival, the bellwether of evolving beer styles, the first wood-aged category appeared in 2002 with 26 entries. By this year’s competition, wood- and barrel-aged beer had been divided into three main categories, with 188 entries between them. (For comparison, the three main “imperial” categories attracted 169 entries.)
But even as beer drinkers are embracing some of the extraordinary wood-influenced flavors these new beers have to offer, the different lineages of the beers and their barrels are every bit as intriguing. The three pioneering efforts of the mid-’90s in Chicago, California and Colorado reflect three different trends that are distinct―even as some brewers are now combining them in creative new ways.
In taking up wooden barrels, brewers are reverting to traditional technology that was a part of the craft for centuries until it was supplanted by easier-to-clean copper and steel.
Of course, barrels themselves were a marked improvement on the ceramic amphorae that preceded them, which were breakable and cumbersome. Barrels were a marvel―durable and constructed with a remarkable precision that was perfected early and never really improved upon: the round circumference made rolling easier, and the bowed middle made them more maneuverable. Barrels may have been an invention of the Gauls―perishable wooden artifacts don’t last well enough in the archaeological record to say―but it’s clear that the Romans were using barrels at least 2,000 years ago.
Several centuries later, the wooden barrel was well established in European feudal culture. The oldest surnames in the English language, dating back to the medieval era, reflect the central occupations in village life at that time: the arrow-maker took the surname Fletcher, the stoneworker was called Mason and the local barrel-maker was known as Cooper, a term still used today.
Oak was then and is still the wood of choice for barrels, prized for the range of sweet, complex notes it can contribute to a liquid stored in it. But it’s likely that oak’s flavoring properties were secondary in establishing its dominance owing to its abundance in European and American forests and its suitability to the cooper’s needs. It’s pure luck for us today that the most appropriate wood for the medieval craftsman’s tasks could later be exploited for its flavor by winemakers, distillers and brewers.