Ageing or conditioning beer in barrels is nothing new--stainless steel hasn't been around as long as beer has! Yet, modern brewers are finding new and interesting uses for many kinds of barrels. Let Beer Hawk help discover the incredible flavours in barrel-aged beers.

What is barrel ageing?

It's pretty clear what it means: beer is aged for a period of time in a barrel. Brewers do this with most styles of beer--even lagers and hybrids--so that the beer can take on the unique character of the particular wood that has been used. The beer's contact on the wood influences its flavours and the aromas a way that offers complexity and interest.

Most of the time homebrewers use oak as their wood of choice. Since sourcing barrels (and getting them to where they need to be!) can be a bit of a production, an acceptable substitute is using oak chips or spirals in the secondary fermentor. And while that will surely add some unique characters to the beer, one of the fun bits of barrel-ageing (like most things to do with beer) is experimenting with what a particular barrel may do to a beer. Thus, modern brewers seek out barrels that had once held sherries, tequilas, brandies, grappas and bourbons. A beer will not only take on the character of the wood but also some of the luxurious flavours from fine spirits will make their way into the final product. Sounds good to us! 

What do barrel-aged beers taste like?

What do barrel-aged beers taste like? More like, what don't they taste like!? As we said, the flavours depend on which sort of wood is used or what was held in it before. On a whole, however, we notice lots of interesting notes like vanilla, tobacco and caramel. Also, because the barrel is porous, bigger beers like imperial stouts or Belgian strong dark ales take on an oxidised character that can end up with port-wine notes or which softens the strong alcohol flavours.

Because the wooden barrels are porous, sour styles like wild ales, lambics or Flanders reds need to be conditioned in them. The necessary bacterias and wild yeasts permeate the wood and hunker down so they can do their job. Without their cosy wooden home, they'd have nowhere to stay and we wouldn't get to experience the amazing complexity of flavours in our favourite sour styles.

Barrel-aged beers you'll love

Since a barrel-aged beer doesn't take like any one thing, you should get trying them yourself! Here are our favourite barrel-aged beers:

Founders KBS

We've talked about this beauty before for those who love something a bit on the strong side but Founders KBS is such a fantastic barrel-aged beer we have to recommend it again. This imperial stout was aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels and is brimming with notes of bourbon alongside chocolate, vanilla and coffee.

Camden Barrel-Aged Lager

This limited-edition lager from Camden Town brewery was aged cognac, tequila and bourbon barrels. We love the incredible mix of flavours: rum, treacle and chocolate. All in a dark lager with a clean finish!

Bruery Terreux Sour in the Rye

There's a fascinating depth of character to this farmhouse-style wild ale from California's Bruery Terreux. It starts with a tart fruitiness and the meanders its way around to a rich, earthy vanilla flavour from the barrels. A spicy note from the rye just adds to its complexity.

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze

The 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze is an elegant example of a spontaneously fermenting beer which has been aged in oak casks. Notes of wood and leather smooth out the highly acidic nature--and barnyard funkiness--of this gueuze. 

Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12 Yr Old

We can't talk about barrel-aged beers if we don't mention the first beer to be aged in malt whisky casks from a named distillery. Notes of smoke and peat float over top of this deep brown English porter. Named the UK's best wood-aged beer at the 2015 World Beer Awards.

Doesn't all this talk of barrel-ageing and decadence and rich, swirling notes of caramel make you want to curl up with one of these beers? Well, it does for us--so off we go! Cheers!