Roll out the barrel

Barrel-aged beers are on the rise at craft breweries around the country

Tapping into a barrel-aged sour beer at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo.

Tapping into a barrel-aged sour beer at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo.

Photo By doug brumley (<a href="http://www.fledgling">www.fledgling</a>)

Jeremy Marshall feels a sting of pain each time he sees an old wine barrel in someone’s front yard, sliced in half, filled with potting soil, and planted with some scraggly native weeds—because Marshall would rather see a barrel filled with beer. Marshall is the head brewer at Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, and while this third-largest craft brewery in California sates the collective thirst of its many followers with relatively conventional styles of fresh beer—like the India Pale Ale—barrel-aged beers are becoming an increasingly important part of the Lagunitas repertoire.

The same is true at hundreds of craft breweries around the country as beer makers and drinkers discover the marvelous alchemy that can happen when brew touches barrel—especially barrels that once bore bourbon, rye, brandy or rum. While Belgian-style sour ales, often allowed to mature in funky-smelling wine barrels, have been a part of brewing for centuries, beers aged in liquor barrels are still an emerging phenomenon.

The effects of a boozy oak barrel on beer—even biggest-boned stouts or barleywines—are not subtle. Moreover, they’re usually delicious, as liquor-soaked oak tends to impart to a beer strong notes of vanilla, coconut, butter and, well, booze.

The craze for this sub-style seems to have begun in 1992, when Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago released its Bourbon County Imperial Stout. The brewery released six barrels’ worth that year. The beer caught the attention of consumers, who found it irresistible, and production exploded in answer to demand. It has increased every year, and by 2010, Goose Island was aging more than 1,200 barrels’ worth of its stout in Kentucky bourbon casks, and the beer—available locally sporadically—has become a classic.

At Lagunitas, the barrel-aging program remains a small one and most of Marshall’s progeny from bourbon, brandy and—sometimes—Pinot Noir barrels is consumed at the Petaluma tasting room. But Firestone Walker Brewing Co., North Coast Brewing Co., Deschutes Brewery, Marin Brewing Co., Founders Brewing Co., as well as Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. are bottling their liquor-barrel beers and dispensing them to the wider world. (Russian River Brewing Co.—the esteemed maker of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger—is also on a serious barrel kick, but of a different sort: The Santa Rosa brewery uses wine barrels infected with microbes like Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus to make a very popular selection of sour and barnyard-smelling ales, often called “critter beers.”)

Imperial stouts, barleywines, high-alcohol Belgian-style ales and other brawny ales are the beers most able to withstand the impacts of the barrel treatment, which may run six to 18 months and can flatten out brewing subtleties in even the heartiest of dark ales. Though Marshall at Lagunitas jokes that it would be a fun homebrewing gag to age a few kegs of cheap American lager in a homebrew-sized bourbon barrel (brewing-supplies shops carry these now), few light beers ever find their way into contact with boozy wood.

At Marin Brewing in Larkspur, a special batch of barleywine just came out of several bourbon barrels after 10 months of aging. Today, the beer—freshly released but only sporadically available—smells a trace sour, with words like “coconut,” “chocolate,” “butterscotch,” and “vanilla” quick to slip off the tongues of those trying to describe it. Eastward, in Grand Rapids Founders is soon releasing an old ale brewed with molasses and aged in “maple syrup bourbon barrels.” Perhaps pair this one to pancakes—but if you can’t find these beers, just wait: Sierra Nevada communications coordinator Bill Manley says that the brewery has put some of its Ovila Quad in brandy and wine barrels and hopes to bottle and release the barrel-aged batch of the abbey-style ale in November or December. And, it is now aging a portion of its Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale in bourbon barrels and may release that treat in 2012 as well.

Marshall notes that commercially brewing beer, with the goal of replicating every nuance in each successive batch every week, every year, can preclude creativity.

Barrel aging provides an artistic and experimental outlet.

“Brewers love barrel aging because it’s like a science project,” Marshall explains, adding that the freedom to experiment and create is what attracted him, like many other brewers, to the art of making beer in the first place. “For a lot of us, playing around with barrels is like being a homebrewer again, when you could do anything.”