As a judge, the experience was a bit unnerving. There was no rhyme or reason to what was going on in the glasses. It was a bit all too Wild Wild West. It was 1998, and the notion that nobody really understood barrel aging was readily apparent.
Looking around the table, I think most of the judges agreed many brewers were brandishing bourbon barrels like a bandolier-toting Pancho Villa shooting it up south of the border. There were a few notable marksmen whose aim was spot-on. Others used barrels more timidly, like Ralphie staring down the barrel of his new Official Red Ryder Air Gun on Christmas Day. Since then, I’ve come to know that barrel aging has winners and losers, and inevitably some of the flavor gain can be incredible while other examples can make you want to shoot your eye out.
I don’t recall there being more than a dozen or so beers to be judged that day. In truth, many of them were not memorable. Their collective strength, however, is what struck a chord with me. Too many of the beers lacked integrated structure and behaved more like a round of fiery boilermakers at an Irish bar.
Even with more losers then winners, this was a seminal moment. I left the judging session wondering how I’d be able to incorporate the barrel-aging process into the beers I wanted to make. Spirit barrels afforded the key to a new world. I slept that night as if Peter Pan had visited my beer-filled dreams in Chicago hotel room and dared me to imagine.
Being a young and inquisitive brewer, I set out to do what every lad does: I went drinking. Specifically, I went out and sampled a ton of new drams and eventually came to love both bourbon and scotch. Many of these experiences help frame my tasting sessions here at the Lost Abbey Brewing Co. Sampling every barrel before we make decisions on a final blend is tough work, but somebody has to do it.
Where once there were no oak barrels for flavoring beer, today they are everywhere. From the tiniest brewpub to the largest breweries, you can’t tour a facility without kicking a barrel somewhere.
A few years ago, I turned down the opportunity to wire a book on the barrel-aging process as it relates to beer. I was knee-deep in growing a fledging brewery, and it just didn’t make sense. But much of the research I have done over the years makes me a great candidate to be your field guide into this exploding segment of craft brewing.