Barrels of Beer
Wednesday, 24 February 2010 14:17

Barrel-aged beers are so hot right now.  However, like many modern fashions and trends it is actually nothing new or innovative.  For centuries, old-time brewers stored their beer in barrels out of necessity.   Sure, the barrel could leak (or even explode) and maybe the brew would pick up a few extraneous flavours from the wood but it was still the best vessel they had at their disposal.

As technology advanced, we gradually moved towards stainless steel kegs.  These would last longer than barrels, were far easier to clean and were totally flavour neutral.  Over the last ten years or so, craft brewers from around the world have started to experiment with and refine the process of barrel-aging,  Many of their products have gone on to critical acclaim. 

As the name implies, barrel-aging simply means the beer spends some additional time in a wooden barrel.  Some of the barrels have been used for wines or spirits (with bourbon and whisky the most common) while others are brand new. 

The advantage of barrel-aging is that the beer can pick up flavours from the wood itself.  Beer aged in bourbon barrels, for example, will often acquire distinctive vanilla and oak notes.  Of course, it can all go horribly wrong and if the beer becomes infected during the process all the brewer is left with is a very expensive barrel of vinegar.

Most sources credit American craft brewers with leading the resurgence though several New Zealand brewers (notably Harrington’s with their Big John Special Reserve) were using bourbon barrel-aging almost a decade ago.  Unable to obtain the barrels any more, Harrington’s have reluctantly stopped using this technique but plenty of other New Zealand breweries are having a go.

Epic Journey, two 20-litre barrels of Epic Armageddon which spent six weeks on the Interisland Ferry, were a big hit at Beervana 2009.  Their Impish Brewer Luke Nicholas predicts we will see a lot more barrels in use at Beervana 2010.  He is a bit of a convert to barrel-aging saying it was “fun and really changed the beer in a way I didn’t expect.  It was interesting but also a bit scary and creepy leaving it to the wood.  You don’t have that control and there are a lot of unknowns.”

Steve Plowman from Hallertau has been using barrels at his epicurean brewery for several years.  His Porter Noir has been aged in gently rinsed pinot barrels for four months then further conditioned in the bottle with the wild yeast brettanomyces for another six.  This technique of using both barrel-aging and wild yeast strains is popular with cutting-edge American breweries such as Russian River and Lost Abbey.  Porter Noir can certainly hold its own as a stunning beer.

Moa Brewery in Blenheim has released a range of barrel-aged beers under its new Barrel Reserve banner.  Founder Josh Scott says the use of wine barrels was a natural progression of their brewing philosophy which is to put a winemaker’s spin on beer.  For these beers they have used new and used wine barrels from the adjoining Allan Scott Winery.  Having this family and business connection is a huge advantage for the Moa team because sourcing appropriate barrels is often difficult and almost expensive.  Most barrels will cost more than $1,000 each.

Josh explains that the French oak barrels they use give extra depth to the three beers by bringing out different aspects of the yeast character, changing the beer’s mouthfeel, introducing a subtle oakiness and, in the case of one beer, bringing in some tannin.  All the Barrel Reserve beers also undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Malthouse currently has the full range available in the fridge.  The Moa 5 Hop Reserve sees their rather flavoursome ale spend time in a French oak chardonnay barrel.  Moa St Joseph Reserve is produced by aging Moa’s Belgian-style tripel in similar barrels.  The barrels were a mix of one, two and three years of age. 

Perhaps the star of the range is the Moa Russian Imperial Stout Reserve, a decadent 9.5% stunner created by aging their already massive Imperial Stout in pinot barrels.  Josh Scott admits he is biased but is adamant that this is one of the best beers Moa have ever made.  He intends the Barrel Reserve range to expand and they have already laid down the next batch.  A barrel-aged pale ale is on the cards and a rare barrel-aged wheat beer is certainly under consideration for the future.

Used judiciously and with skill, barrel-aging can add a whole new flavour dimension to beer.  It is worth seeking out some ‘beer from the wood.’

Cheers


Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine

Links

Moa – http://www.moabeer.co.nz
Epic – http://www.epicbeer.com
Hallertau – http://www.hallertau.co.nz
Russian River – http://www.russianriverbrewing.com/
Lost Abbey - http://www.lostabbey.com/
Malthouse Facebook Group - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wellington/Malthouse/7084276173
Real Beer – http://www.realbeer.co.nz/blog/blog.html
Beer and Brewer Magazine - http://www.beerandbrewer.com/