BEER: Roll out the Barrel

Updated: Apr 6

Perfection takes time, but barrel-aged beers, with layered flavors that please the palette, are well worth the production time. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018



STORY / Mike Smith


Heaven. No other word could describe the combination of coconut, vanilla, sweet chocolate, dark fruit, molasses, smoke, leather, and caramel flavors in my first sip of a 2009 Bourbon County Brand Stout. That beer single-handedly sent me on a personal quest to try as many barrel-aged stouts as I could find. But first, let me back up to the beginning.


I was getting more into stouts in general (I wasn’t a big whiskey guy like a lot of my friends), so I bought a bottle of Dragon’s Milk from New Holland Brewing. I’m not going to lie; both the beer’s name and the high ABV (or alcohol by volume) caught my attention. The first sip blew my mind. How could this be a beer? It had so many layered flavors and a thing going on I can’t begin to describe. I knew this style of beer was something special.


Not long after, I went to browse my local beverage store and asked one of the sales guys which stout I should pick up. Without hesitating, he pointed to a 22-ounce bottle of 2009 Bourbon County Brand Stout. “These won’t last long,” he said. “You really need to try this beer.” A beer with a $15 price tag? I wasn’t sold. But after watching a few people grab a bottle like they had found a treasure and run straight to the checkout stand, I picked up a bottle and headed home. I popped that Bourbon County right away and poured pretty much the whole thing into a pint glass. (I know, I know; I was a rookie beer drinker.) It was the start of an evening that will forever be burned into my beer memory. The aromas filled my nose as the flavors coated my mouth, and every sensation lingered for minutes afterward. This was a beer with wine-like layers of complexity.


A decade into my barrel-aged stout-tasting journey, I am now an avid whiskey fan. There is an art to producing both a great barrel-aged stout and a fine whiskey. For whiskey distillers, a lifetime of dedicated work is measured by their first complete batch of whiskey—a product that won’t reach its final maturity until well into the middle of their careers (whiskey traditionally ages more than twenty years). A master distiller samples the whiskey of previous generations, as well as their own batch as it ages from year to year, and passes that distilling knowledge down to the next generation of distillers. In the brewing industry, the time the beer spends in the barrel is measured in months, not years (typically ten to twenty-four months for a barrel-aged stout). But the drive and collaboration among brewers to create something special with barrel-aged stouts is very similar to that of master whiskey distillers.



Compared with distillers, brewers are still infants in the barrel-aging business. At Goose Island, we are just creeping up on our twenty-fifth year of making Bourbon County Brand Stout. Back in the 1990s, barrel-aged stouts weren’t even a category at the Great American Beer Festival. Former brewmaster Greg Hall had to submit his first barrel-aged stout in the Imperial Stout category, and the beer was declared inadmissible. If only those judges had known what was ahead.


Since then, more and more breweries have produced great barrel-aged stouts, and the variants (from ingredients to the type of barrel used for aging) keep coming. It’s an awesome time to be a fan in the industry. The best way to get to know these beers is to grab a glass (please go with a snifter, not a pint glass) and try as many barrel-aged stouts as you can get your hands on. Yes, these beers will taste different over time. Use that as an excuse to buy two bottles of each, one for now and one for later.


BOURBON COUNTY, CHICAGO


“This thing fermented so fast, in a couple of days. At that point, I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.”


In the early 1990s, Greg Hall (Goose Island’s former brewmaster and founder of Virtue Cider) wanted to make something unique to commemorate the brewery’s 1,000th batch of beer. There was only one problem: He had no idea what to brew.


“We were asked to participate in a beer, bourbon, and cigar dinner in South Bend, Indiana, so I went,” recalls Greg. “I got to sit right next to Booker Noe…now, that doesn’t happen every day. Booker had been the Master Distiller at Jim Beam for a long, long time. We talked all night long about beer and bourbon. By the end of the night, I had managed to get six bourbon barrels from him.”


These barrels were layered with the earthy funk of oak, smoke, and spices of the spirit they once housed. “I got back to the brewery and said, ‘Okay, we are going to make the biggest Imperial Stout we can, put it in bourbon barrels, sit back, and see what happens.’ ”


“I went all in and stuffed more malt into the tank than I had ever done before. This thing fermented so fast, in a couple of days. At that point, I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.”


Chicago’s dynamic weather conditions—those bone-cold winters and beer-worthy summers—turned out to be the perfect barrel-aging environment. Weather fluctuations caused the wood to expand and contract, pushing the beer into the pores of the wood and back out again. “When the stout finally came out of the bourbon barrels, we knew this was a whole different type of beer,” Greg says.


“Nobody had ever made a [commercial] beer like it.” He bottled and submitted the inaugural Bourbon County Brand Stout in the category of Imperial Stout at the Great American Beer Festival. “We got disqualified.”


“This beer that we’d just been messing around with for our 1,000th batch was too big, too strong, and too bourbon-y and barrel-y for what the beer judges expected. But then everyone else at the GABF couldn’t stop talking about it. The character, the complexity, the flavors and aromas—people weren’t used to experiencing these kinds of things in a beer.”


The beer that sparked such flavor contention would go on to fuel an entirely new category of beers: barrel-aged stouts. To this day, barrel-aged stouts are one of the most prestigious categories at GABF, with competition among craft breweries for a medal in this highly skilled category a badge of (brewing) honor. The drive for barrel-aged beer also spurred an annual world-class beer competition, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer (FoBAB), which launched in Chicago sixteen years ago. It’s a big deal among the barrel-aged crowd, as aged beers, mead, and cider are debuted at the festival, while others are laid to rest after a final public tasting.


“And here we were just making something for our 1,000th batch that we thought we’d never make again,” says Greg.


BLACK FRIDAY


Some folks like to shop the typical warehouse sales the day after Thanksgiving; others prefer to shop for beer. Black Friday is the one day each year when our annual Bourbon County Brand Stout lineup is released. In the early days, it was just a day we picked to release the beer. But this is Chicago, and the event soon took on a life of its own. The line starts early outside a designated local retail store (one year a devoted fan camped out for two days; Goose staffers brought him a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving morning). You bring the campout gear and Blackhawks (or Bears) beanies; we’ll bring coffee from our neighbors down the street (Intelligentsia) and doughnuts for breakfast.


BREWING PROCESS & AGING


Most beers are meant to be enjoyed fresh. They typically have a lighter malt body, lower ABV, and hop characteristics that are at the forefront of their taste profile (oxygen causes their flavor to deteriorate). Barrel-aged beers are an exception.


Their ingredient profile is usually very different, with more than double the amount of malt (creating a higher sugar content), which in turn results in a higher ABV (8% to even 20% ABV). That high ABV is what helps the beer “survive” for such a long period of time during the barrel-aging process. These beers also have more hops to balance out all that sweetness, so the bitterness can be as high as double that of an IPA.


When the beer is finished fermenting, the magic of the barrel comes into play. Freshly emptied whiskey or other spirit barrels are typically preferred, as those wet, unwashed staves are still literally soaked with the whiskey. After the barrels are filled, they are stored over the next few months—or even years—in a barrel-aging warehouse (space can be an issue, as it was for Greg Hall with that first batch of Bourbon County Brand Stout, when he stashed it under an office desk).


Over time, the porous wood causes evaporation, making the beer more concentrated. The hops will begin to break down, and their dominant flavor will fade away. That big malt backbone also chemically changes as it becomes the star. Mother Nature does her part as well. When the temperature outside rises, pressure makes the wood expand, which pushes the beer deep into the charred oak staves. As the cold weather creeps into the barrel warehouse, the wood contracts, literally squeezing beer out of its pores and back into the barrels, bringing with it all of that rich whiskey character: vanilla, coconut, caramel, oak, and so much more.


The longer the beer is left to age, the richer those characteristics. On the flip side, a beer that is aged too long will lose the more subtle, layered flavors and aromas that make a truly great barrel-aged beer. This is where the skills of the brewing team come into play.


STYLE & PROFILE


Today, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) defines a “wood-aged beer” extremely broadly. The beer can be virtually any style (porter, stout, ale) and can be aged in any type of barrel (whiskey, bourbon, port, sherry, Madeira, wine), or even wood chips can be utilized. Adjuncts like cinnamon, maple syrup, coffee, and other flavors may also be added to this beer style.


Several of those same words used to describe Goose Island’s first barrel-aged stout back in the 1990s are right here, too: vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, coffee, chocolate, cocoa. But for those of us at Goose Island, the best thing is knowing that all these years after Greg Hall’s first bourbon barrel-aged stout was disqualified from the BJCP for being too “experimental,” according to official BJCP guidelines today, “experimentation is encouraged” in the category.


Ready for some recommendations? Check out Barrel-Aged.