By: Tobias Coughlin-Bogue

 

Once an intriguing experimental style, bourbon-barrel aged beers are now an institution in the craft beer world. Nearly every craft brewery—be they a macro-microbrewery like Elysian, or a true nanobrewery working out of a single 7 barrel tank—has a barrel program, and nearly every barrel program is centered around bourbon barrels. But bourbon barrels aren’t the only barrels out there, and there are plenty of breweries making great, innovative beers using barrels from surprising sources.

While bourbon lends itself exceptionally well to a variety of dark and hearty beers, and is rightly popular because of this, using other spirits allows brewers to play with barrel-aging beers that would normally would not mesh well with the heady flavors leached out by bourbon soaked staves.

Spokane’s 12 String Brewing Company makes two different barrel-aged brews using alternative barrels: a rum-barrel-aged coconut porter, and a tequila-barrel-aged imperial hefeweizen infused with mango. Coconut porter is by no means a new style, but after tasting it I was shocked it had taken so long to find its way into a rum barrel, and that this heaven-made match should occur so far from rum country. But in the global economy, a good idea isn’t bound by borders.

Terry Hackler, owner of 12 String, said when he decided he wanted to play around with barrel-aging, he was instantly drawn to alternative barrels: “Everybody ages it in bourbon or whiskey and you look for something different. You try to do something different, that’s part of the fun.” When he decided on rum barrels, he was able to source them from Jamaica using an import broker.

“It took a lot of leg work,” he says of the process. But all that leg work certainly paid off. The beer is delicious: Rich, syrupy smooth, and bursting with tropical flavors. The rum and coconuts play up into each other, creating a flavor palette rivaling the best tiki cocktails.

The imperial hefeweizen, on the other end of the flavor spectrum, was also great: tart, bright, and fruity with a big tequila kick up front. The choice of tequila barrel for a lighter style of beer is an obvious one, but a great illustration of the many ways that non-whiskey barrels can be paired with lighter-bodied beers to create new and exciting flavor combinations.

When you add wine barrels to the mix, the array of possibilities becomes even vaster. The worlds of craft beer and wine are often portrayed as diametrically opposed. Winemakers are snobs who eat caviar, craft brewers are regular Joes who wear Dickies work shirts and subsist on BBQ. But when we shed those unnecessary presuppositions, the resulting collaborations can be lovely.

The brewers at Black Raven Brewing approached Brennan Leighton, then head winemaker at Efeste Cellars, and asked if they could buy a couple used wine barrels off him, as they wanted to start a barrel program but couldn’t get their hands on any bourbon barrels. He knew Black Raven’s head of sales, who used to tend bar at his local watering hole, so he was open to the idea and invited the Black Raven head honchos over for a little barrel tasting.

While they were walking around the barrel room, a little “friendly adversarial conversation” occurred between the Leighton and Black Raven’s head brewer about the nuances of their respective jobs. This led to a discussion of yeast, which led to the brilliant idea to save the lees—all native WA wine yeast—from the wine and try them out on beer wort. The result, Leighton says, was “fucking great.” The beer, named Feral after the naturally-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from which it originated, was a big hit, winning the gold medal in the experimental category at the 2012 North American Beer Awards.

The idea of using wine yeast in different fermented goods wasn’t new to Brennan: “I’d played around with using wine yeast in bread. Like using the lees or packaged wine yeast to make bread. It was so different from any bread I’d ever head. The flavors were so different. We used this one yeast that really brought out fruit characters in wine and it was just so much….it was like fruity bread.”

But neither he nor the Black Raven folks had ever tried something like that for beer. The wine yeast had a similar effect on the saison wort it was applied to, imbuing it with all of the crispness and acidity of a good sauv Blanc. As Leighton puts it, “It tastes almost like both. It’s definitely one of those beers that makes some people say, ‘Nah, this isn’t for me.’ But you can tell which people also drink wine because they gravitate toward it.”

In this instance, the wine barrel was used not just to flavor the beer but to give it its basic character. More commonly, wine barrels are used as an accent. Cascade Brewing in Portland is well known for their use of wine barrels to flavor their beloved sour beers, and Black Raven offers another seasonal saison that’s aged in French oak with brettanomyces (“Brett”) as well as a red-wine-barrel-aged version of their Belgian strong ale.

But wine barrels are also a functional alternative to whiskey barrels for brewers. Matt McClung, head brewer of Schooner Exact Brewing Co., uses third or fourth generation wine barrels in his sour program because they are ideal for the souring process: “That neutral wood provides the substrate for the microbiology that we’re after. Brettanomyces specifically can metabolize cellulose. The Brett will get down into the wood. It’ll get in a quarter inch, give or take. The cool thing about that is once we’ve run a barrel one time, we can give it just a quick hot rinse—nothing major—get the bulk of the sediment out and then put beer back into it. And it’s inoculated. The lactobacillus doesn’t survive as well but the Brett does.”

Whiskey barrels have certainly dominated the barrel-aging conversation for years, as their distinctive flavor gives the right beer a gripping quality that is hard to duplicate. McClung remembers sitting on the patio at Full Sail Brewing in 1999 and, despite the summer heat, ordering his first bourbon-barrel-aged beer. McClung, who also has a robust bourbon-barrel program, recalls having the unmistakable feeling that he was drinking something both very new and very important. Obviously he was right, but the popularity of bourbon-barrel-aged beers is really just the tip of the iceberg.

One thing that the world of craft brewing can be depended on to do is innovate. The quest for the rarest, most outside-the-box brew is a never-ending one, and I anticipate that it won’t be long before cross-fermentation projects and Aquavit-barrel-aged brews aren’t the rarity they are today. I, for one, can’t wait!