Beer was housed in wood for centuries, fermenting, aging, traveling and even being served straight from barrels. Barrels were simply the best method of containment not only for beer but also wine, liquor, vinegars and even dry goods. Although the true time and place of origin for barrels is hard to determine as all early artifacts rotted long ago, the general consensus is that they were first constructed by Celts or Gauls in northern Europe around 300 B.C., and spread over the world after they were conquered by the Roman Empire. Although wine is now traditionally the drink that comes to mind when thinking of barrels, it is likely that the first barrels were actually made to house beer as the Gauls and Celts did not make their own wine until much later. With wood being lighter, stronger and easier to handle than the clay pots being used before, the use of barrels expanded into wine and other goods by 100 A.D.
Wooden barrels remained the standard housing for wine, beer and later liquor up into the 20th century. Somewhere in there, it was realized that the wood and aging process imbued the beverage with particular flavor qualities. Additionally, what had previously been stored in the barrel also had an effect on taste. Generally, this was prevented by adding a layer of pitch to the inside of the barrel before storing beer, but winemakers were making full use of this by the 19th centrury.
Wood has its downsides, though; it’s hard to clean, porous, and hard to seal completely. Because of this, beer had to be consumed quickly, hopped heavy-handedly or cask-conditioned in order to prevent infection. With the advent of metal brewing equipment and storage, barrels were all but abandoned by brewers.
However, the qualities provided by barrels were not forgotten, and now breweries are taking advantage of the flavors of wood, as well as the wines and liquors stored before. Barrels in beer-making are gaining popularity for some of the same reasons they were abandoned. Fortunately, breweries nowadays have the luxury of being selective in which brews they decide to age, and the barrels they age in, allowing for combinations to be orchestrated and perfected.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout may be the first modern craft beer that utilized the bourbon barrel-aging process that has taken the craft scene by storm. The bourbon gives this a unique sweetness and the oak a smokiness over chocolate caramel and vanilla notes.
A twist on a classic, O’Hara’s Barrel-Aged Leann Follain is allowed to sit for 90 days in Irish whiskey barrels, enhancing the chocolatey flavor of the stout with the addition of dry scotch.
Tennent’s Aged with Whisky Oak combines wood, caramel and vanilla flavors through the use of a single malt and toasted oak.
Uinta’s Jacked B Nimble is a part of their Crooked Line, a spicy imperial pumpkin ale that’s has a signature oak note and a touch of rye.
Victory White Monkey takes the beloved Golden Monkey and allows it to mature for three months in oaken barrels that once stored white wine, adding nuanced to an already delicious brew.
After eight months aging, Evolution Bourbon Migration puts the bourbon flavor at the front with notes of vanilla and char, balanced by chocolate, toffee and coffee underneath.
New Belgium La Folie is a sour brown ale that spends one to three years in a huge oak barrels called foeders, coming out with a sharply fruity flavor full of berries and apple.