Once upon a time, brewers had no other option than to store their beer in wooden barrels. Then stainless steel came on the scene and things changed considerably. Stainless steel offered numerous benefits to brewers – it didn't impart any unwanted flavors to their beer, it was easier to clean and it was a bit more affordable as well. However, wooden barrels are making a comeback in the world of craft brewing. What should you know about barrel-aged beer?
Oak might be the traditional image of barrel aging but it is not the only thing that you will find out there today. Oak is still used, but you will also find birch and cedar and even barrels previously used to store sherry and wine. Oak can offer vanilla and resin flavors. Birch and cedar impart their own unique characteristics to beer, too.
One of the most interesting things going on in the world of barrel-aged beer is the number of brewers choosing to use barrels that once held whiskey or bourbon. While most of the wood's flavoring is gone here, the alcohol flavors still remain. In fact, this can add a considerable number of flavors (smoky/burnt) that work well with darker beers like porter, stout and Imperial stouts. Barrel-aged beer here can have the aroma of whiskey but not the alcoholic kick found with stronger spirits.
For brewers trying to recreate older beer recipes, barrel aging is an important process. All beers were once aged in wood barrels (either pitch-lined or unlined) and played an important part in flavoring the finished product. Any brewer hoping to recreate an authentic recipe from before the advent of stainless steel and aluminum will need to consider barrel aging to ensure the right flavor characteristics.
Finally, barrel aging also gives beer a chance to mature in a natural way. Beer aged in barrels can have a chance to develop natural carbonation and is often served unfiltered and cool, but not chilled. This gives the brew a chance to develop and refine its flavors and aromas to a far greater degree. However, if the beer is not pasteurized it can have a relatively short shelf life.
Barrel aging has once more come into vogue but it is anyone's guess if it is just a fad or here to stay. Craft brewers are finding many different ways that this process can be applied to their art and beer lovers are enjoying the results, but just in case it is a fad you better get out there and start drinking them now!