Presiding wedding official (curiously dressed in brewer’s boots and jeans): “Dearly Beloved Beer Lovers. We are gathered here today to join a beautiful barrel with this amazing amber ale. Do you Quercus alba take this heaven-sent Firestone Walker Ale to have and to hold, in sickness and in health?”
A stunning sexy shiny brand new American oak barrel answers:
“I have longed for this day since I was a tiny little oaky seedling. So, for better or worse, I do.”
Brewer with filling wand in hand:
“You may now kiss the bride.” (Brewer begins filling the empty barrel.)
Later, the newly joined Mr. and Mrs. Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale dance together as husband and wife for the first time as Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt tearfully croon:
I don’t know much
But I know I love you
And that may be
All I need to know …
Amid a flurry of cheers, the stunning oaky bride and her new ale husband are sent off to honeymoon where they will slumber together for one week. She’ll lavish him with drying tannic kisses as he softly bathes her inner staves with an intoxicating caramel wash. Their consummated union will soon nurture stubby, little brown progeny sent out into the world as striking examples of a marriage made in heaven. And with each sip, the world will confirm what the brewers already knew—Quercus alba and ale can indeed be suitable life partners, and Firestone Double Barrel Ale showcases this with stunning clarity.
With each and every new union of malted barley, hops, water, yeast and oak barrels, we are reminded that this marriage of ingredients is still very much in its infancy. While wine and distilled spirits have a rich documented history of aging in oak barrels to enhance and flavor the liquids, beer does not.
For the past 15 years, the little brewery in Paso Robles, CA, has operated like a Vegas wedding chapel, acting as one of the busiest, most efficient officiants overseeing the marriage of oak and beer. But the employees at Fire-stone Walker are not alone witnessing the nuptials of beer and oak. Brewers worldwide are racing to the altar of barrel aging their beers, hoping to usher in new time-in-a-bottle moments.
As craft brewers practicing this alchemy, we’re doing far less in the way of navigation than one might imagine. A Google search lists more than 75.2 million entries for oak and wine. It lists 12.8 million for oak and spirits, while struggling to find a mere 39,500 entries for oak and beer. How did this disparity come to be?
Much of it has to do with freshness and spoilage. Beer remains the lowest alcohol-by-volume beverage of the three (if we assume the bulk of the beer consumed in the world is close to 5 percent ABV). As such, beer is prone to degradation in ways that distilled spirits and wine are not. Both of these liquids are inherently more suitable for aging than beer, given their potency (assuming most wine is packaged at 14 percent ABV and distilled spirits are bottled at 80 proof, or 40 percent ABV).
While production methods for wine and distilled spirits are largely unchanged, modern brewing methods have evolved considerably since Louis Pasteur published his landmark findings on single-cell pure yeast strain isolation. Certainly his research on fermentation applies across numerous alcoholic beverages, but clearly the production of beer has shifted the most.
Beer remains a beverage that is most often consumed in its relative youth with an accelerated sense of urgency. Historically, time has not been its friend, making it the most perishable of the three alcoholic drinks. The bulk of the beer in the world is consumed before it reaches 6 months of age. Consider that few wines are ever bottled with such youthful enthusiasm.
Where wooden vessels once were common in brewing, breweries today are singularly focused on uniformity and the use of inert materials to deliver the highest level of purity to the consumer. Stainless steel, aluminum and glass have all become common carriers, displacing wooden tanks and casks as the vessel of choice. The remnants of beer production from 200 years ago are barely visible today, with a focus on modernity, efficiency and predictability.
And now that brewers have perfected the science of stable brews, we have set our sights on stretching the limitations of beer production in numerous ways. Front and center in this flavors race is the use of white oak (both American and French varieties). From what I have seen, the use of white oak for aging and flavoring beer is here for good. And like a mother-in-law who comes to visit and never leaves, white oak promises to exert considerable influence.
Her disposition may be subtle or wholly overstated, depending on the season. But minimally, you should expect that she’ll have the keys to affect the entire flavor house of beer. She’ll spend the bulk of her time being tannic. As a consumer, you can expect to be the object of her acerbic drying barbs. Rest assured, if you ride these out, her demeanor will soften. Do not let your guard down. The aged, smoother tannins will always remain, albeit in a less intrusive way.
Hopefully, the two of you will have good days, and everything will turn up vanilla. Your world will smell familiar and sweet. Vanilla is so powerful you’ll swear white oak likes you. Caution, her daughter married down when she met beer. For a mother-in-law always believes her daughter should dream each night in a château somewhere.
When white oak acts up, you’ll need to break out the charm card. It might be best to ply her with some caramels and toffee-laced notes. These shouldn’t be hard to find. They’ll just be below the surface of the tannins and vanilla. Should you successfully find these traits, you’ll have the tools needed to predict white oak’s moods, their peaks and valleys. In time the subtle nuances revealed between batches and barrels will come with ease. With this road map in hand, you might even learn to appreciate white oak enough to invite her to hang around, opening your home to her extended stay in your cool damp cellar.
In many ways, your journey will echo mine. You’ll learn to appreciate the flavors of white oak and her almost cantankerous mother-in-law-like temperament without ever knowing all of “Mom’s” life story or how she came to be the preferred wood for aging precious alcohols. I know this because every time you uncork a powerful Napa cabernet or nurse three fingers of your favorite bourbon, you’ll be conversing with her. And like me, you’ll LOVE that conversation.
After 15 years of working with oak barrels and beer, I’m here to tell you that I don’t know much, but I know I love her. I am not alone in my love for her capabilities. There are captains everywhere who daily fill an armada of white oak barrels and set them afloat with the same hope, wishes and dreams as newlyweds leaving the wedding chapel in Vegas. But like some of those unions, we’re not successful 100 percent of the time … and that may be all you need to know.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.