Barrel of laughs

Barrel-aged beers

The Depot uses its spirit barrels for aging special release beers.

The Depot uses its spirit barrels for aging special release beers.

Photo/Eric Marks

Thanks to some leftovers from an overstocked and under-attended holiday party, I’ve chosen grape over grain for my evening beverage the last few days. Nothing fancy, but it’s got me thinking about wine and beer a bit. At another party, a friend and I were discussing the world of beer and buying habits. While he’s not the maniac I am for special releases and high-end brewskis, he enjoys well-crafted beer, but he avoids spending very much on his everyday, after-work six packs. I can easily justify it; at least my hobby isn’t buying fine art or good wine. While the most coveted, highly regarded beers will usually run $20-$30 a bottle, that price tier in wine gets you readily available supermarket wine.

I’m not arguing the merits of beer vs. wine—different strokes for different folks, I say—but historically, despite very different ingredients and production methods, these two widely enjoyed drinks share a common bond—the barrel, the handcrafted fruit of a cooper’s labor, simple staves of oak surrounded by metal hoops. At some point in history, man saw the wisdom in using wood rather than terra-cotta or other materials to store liquids. They almost certainly were unaware of both the benefits and pitfalls of using a porous, cellulose material to store beverages.

Modern science, though, has cast a bright light on what’s happening at a microscopic level—oxygen seeping in, tannins and compounds from the wood leaching out, microorganisms lurking in the cellular nooks and crannies. Both beer and wine have traditionally fermented in oak barrels. Distilled spirits like rum and whiskies have a long history of aging in barrels, either for storage and transport or purposefully to create flavor.

This is all a long way of saying that barrels are awesome. Part science, part art, the use of barrels adds dimensions of flavor that would be alchemy if science didn’t explain it so well.Broadly speaking, barrel-aged beer mostly falls into two camps: wine barrels and spirit barrels.

Thanks to the microorganisms left behind and vinous flavors saturating the wood, wine barrels can create a variety of flavors depending on the type of wine, how long the beer spends in the barrels, and the type of beer. In a previous column, I highlighted local sour/funky brewers Imbib, Brasserie St. James, and others using this technique.

Aging beer—often imperial stouts and barleywines—in bourbon barrels has enjoyed enormous popularity over the last decade. With bourbon solidly established, you’ll now also find beer aged in rum barrels, spicy tequila barrels and beyond.

We’re fortunately close to Truckee’s FiftyFifty Brewing, who recently released their 10th annual lineup of acclaimed imperial stouts, Eclipse. A beer geek favorite, Eclipse is a series of bottles of imperial stout aged in different spirit barrels, ranging from apple brandy to 12-year old Elijah Craig, blends, and coffee and vanilla versions, each bottled with a different colored wax seal. We’ve also seen three remarkable stouts from Great Basin Brewing in recent years: the Scytale series of 385, 404 and 808, each named for the number of days spent in the barrels. And of course, as both a brewery and distillery, The Depot enjoys the availability of its own barrels for aging beers.