The skinny on barrel-aged beer
Here is what you need to know
For the longest time, discarded liquor barrels were used to make quirky furniture or flower planters. But no more, thanks to crafty brewers who are taking used barrels and making delicious beer out of it. Joking aside, the art and science of barrel aging is of course an age-old practice that adds to the beer flavour notes from the wood itself and the specific alcohol it once contained.
It is believed that barrels may have been an invention of the Gauls but it’s clear that the Romans were using barrels at least 2,000 years ago. Today, brewers using wooden barrels are reverting to traditional technology that was a part of the craft for centuries until it was supplanted by easier-to-clean copper and steel.
Until the craft beer revolution, nearly all the barrels used in brewing were coated on the inside with brewer’s pitch (a resinous preparation used especially for coating the inside of beer casks) to prevent the barrel from influencing the beer. An exception to the rule are Belgium’s lambic beers as they require microorganisms in the wood to provide the tart and funky flavours that makes them so unique.
Barrel aging is a way for brewers to add extra complexity and layers of flavour to beer. The flavour imparted to the beer from a barrel is obviously connected to whatever spirit or wine previously lived within the vessel and the type of wood from which it was built. The result are complex, creative and mostly potent brews popping up on taps and shelves around the country and around the world.
Many different styles of beer make good candidates for barrel aging, but malt-forward and high alcohol styles like imperial stouts and barley wines most commonly see the inside of a barrel.
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