Unpredictable, time-consuming and expensive – ageing beer in wood certainly doesn't make life easy for the brewer. But, as Jane Peyton BS discovers, its disciples wouldn’t have it any other way
In this digital age, beer matured in wood is sexy. It is the analogue expression of the skill of a brewer in harnessing invisible elements of nature – yeast, microflora, flavour and the essence of the wood. It is unpredictable, it cannot be hurried, and it cannot be dictated to. There is no substitute for time.
How appropriate then that Beavertown Brewery named its range of barrel-aged beers 'Tempus'. The brewery has a variety of beer styles maturing in two foeders, and 250 barrels that originally contained other alcoholic drinks. The brewery cannot commit to release dates because nature controls the timeframe.
Logan Plant, brewery founder, explains: 'We have entered a decade-long experiment. We are working with new yeast strains, bacteria, different types of wood and barrels. The nuances that wild yeasts bring to the party are so varied and so different to saccharomyces. The delicacy derived from the barrels and its forbearing liquid imparts wonderfully on the beer being conditioned within.'
Those wild yeasts bestow different degrees of sourness to the beer. For a Belgian lambic brewer they count as members of the family, discreetly populating the barrels in which the beer is matured.
Petrus, a brand of sour beers made by Brewery de Brabandere, recently entered the British market. The beers are aged for a minimum of 18 months in 220 hectolitre foeders. There, the descendants of the original seven strains of wild yeast and microflora that the brewery harnessed when it started brewing in 1894, create complex tangy citrus and green apple flavours that are characteristic of Belgian sour beer.
Why did this movement start? Simple – because beer in wood tastes good
Those foeders are repeatedly used for decades because the all-important microflora inhabits the wood and the beer must be aged slowly and for lengthy periods. In contrast, beer aged in barrels that previously contained whisky or wine fuses with the host flavour, and the barrels can be used only once.
Ageing beer in wood is challenging due to the sheer unpredictability of the microflora, hidden faults in the barrel that can ruin the beer and bacteria, turning the beer to vinegar. At the end of the maturation process, blending is the key to a premium and balanced beer.
Humans have been storing food and drink in wooden containers for millennia. Well into the 20th century wooden casks were the norm for dispensing beer to customers in pubs, although the barrels were usually treated with chemicals to minimise the wood flavour.
During the past few decades the convenience, cost and sterility factor has all but banished wood in the beer industry, leaving stainless steel as the everyday packaging.
But in 1992 Chicago's Goose Island Beer Co became an early advocate for the old ways when it produced Bourbon County Stout, aged in bourbon casks. In Britain, Edinburgh’s Innis & Gunn was the pioneer with its Oak Aged beer – early iterations matured in whisky barrels.
Why did this movement start? Simple – beer in wood tastes good. The wow factor of wood’s ability to elevate beer to another flavour level introduced drinkers of this era to the romance of barrel ageing, inspiring brewers to experiment with a variety of cask finishes and styles.
It coincided with the revolution in brewing in the USA when drinkers became sick of buying tasteless, mass-produced beers that were more about the bottom line than the magic coalition of water, malt, hops and yeast; beer made with imagination and passion.
Asked what impact wood can have on the flavour of beer, Søren Eriksen, owner and head brewer of New Zealand’s 8 Wired Brewing Co, says, 'You can achieve the complex flavours in the beer through extended barrel-ageing that are near impossible to do in stainless steel.'
If you ask a brewer which style of beer is the best candidate for ageing in wood they are more than likely to reel off a list including barley wine, old ale, sour, saison, imperial stout and porter – in other words,
a selection of big beers with big flavours.
This is not a blink-and-it’s-over trend, either – not least because of the commitment by the brewer of money (invested to purchase barrels and foeders), dedicated floor space (needed in the brewery for the barrels) and time, as the wood slowly submits its soul into the beer.
For pubs and restaurants, barrel-aged beers represent a premium product that appeals to customers who are willing to spend for the experience. Barrel-aged beers are, by their very nature, limited editions – and their rarity value gives them a certain kudos.
Barrel-aged beers are a great USP – a draw for any enthusiasts to come and visit
Fuggles Beer Café in Royal Tunbridge Wells has a varied and inspiring beer menu. Owner Alex Greig says of wood-aged beers, ‘They're a great USP. A lot of them tend to be rarer or harder to get hold of, just small batch, so it’s a draw for any enthusiasts to come and visit us. Wood-aged beers add something special to our beer lists and allow us to have some unique and rare beer – especially when we decide to age it in our cellar for a little longer.'
Thornbridge Brewery is adding even more excitement to an already thrilling beer sector with its Barrel Aged Series.
Rob Lovatt, head brewer, says, 'There is so much scope for unusual finishes. Some I want to try next year are lavender and elderberries, and I’m also keen on a golden ale matured in tequila casks with rosemary and hibiscus.'
Anyone who thinks that wine is the only appropriate libation for a dining table needs to take a masterclass from leading proponents of barrel-ageing such as Thornbridge, Moor Beer, Beavertown, Burning Sky, Siren, Wild Beer Co, Elgood’s and the venerable lambic brewers of Belgium. The drinks these brewers produce showcase the extraordinary range of flavours that wood gives to beer.
Dried fruit, chocolate, coffee, vanilla, citrus, nuttiness, treacle, roasted, tangy, bitter, acidic, savoury and sweet are a selection of the flavours bequeathed by such beers – all of which are also found in food. So for restaurants and foodie pubs there is a real opportunity to match their carefully devised menus with some spectacular barrel-aged beers and give their customers an unexpected treat.
Bartenders might be tempted to experiment by including barrel-aged beers in cocktails, but for me, the subtlety would be lost if anything else was added.
My cocktail advice for the perfect appreciation of such special beers? Serve them in an elegant glass; sip them with a reverential attitude; give thanks to Mother Nature. Repeat.
Wild Feijoa Sour Ale, 8 Wired 6.7% ABV
A face-puckering pale beer from New Zealand’s 8 Wired Brewery that will awake your senses with its big tropical fruit tart, minty refreshment and zingy acidity. It is soured with the aid of lactobacillus and aged in New Zealand Pinot Noir barrels for a year, before fresh feijoas (New Zealand’s other national fruit) are added directly to the barrel. The beer is then aged for another year, before being blended and bottled.
RRP £9.50, New Zealand Beer Collective, 07904 108 168, newzealandbeer.co.uk
Fusion, Moor Beer 8% ABV
An old ale aged in barrels that previously contained Somerset cider brandy. From the beer you will taste treacle, dried fruit and bittersweet cocoa, which marries with apples, cinnamon, vanilla and oak tannin from the barrels. Drink this from a chalice next to an open fire, ideally stroking a dog just like the beer’s brewer Justin Hawke does.
RRP £15/66cl Moor Beer, 01179 414 460, moorbeer.co.uk
Serpent, Thornbridge and Brooklyn Brewery 9.5% ABV
This collaboration between two innovative brewers started off as a Belgian-style golden ale and then took the high road to Herefordshire in search of cider lees from Oliver’s Cider. Back at Thornbridge Brewery the beer is aged for a year in a barrel with wild yeast from the cider apples. The result, in a 75cl champagne-style bottle, is a dry, lemony, tangy, fruity taste of the countryside.
RRP £15/75cl, Thornbridge Brewery, 01629 815999, thornbridgebrewery.co.uk
Caribbean Chocolate Cake, Siren Brew Co and Cigar City Brewing Co 7.4% ABV
This is dessert and after-dinner coffee all in one scrumptious stout. Rich chocolate, espresso, toasted nuts from the malts and added cocoa nibs with hints of orange and lemon hops – then a wave of vanilla from the bourbon casks in which the beer ages for a year.
RRP £4.50/33cl, Siren Craft Brew, 0118 973 0929, sirencraftbrew.com