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Roll Out the Barrels!

Beer in barrels was popularized during World War II with the hit big band tune “Beer Barrel Polka,” performed by the Andrews Sisters in 1939.

“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run

Zing boom tararrel, ring out a song of good cheer

Now’s the time to roll the barrel, for the gang’s all here.

Zing do da do ding do da-do-do-day

Roll it out, roll it out, roll out the barrel

Dump-dump-da da-da da-dat en da-da-da-da-da

Sing a song of good cheer

‘Cause the whole gang is here

Roll it out, roll it out

Let’s do the beer barrel polka.”

If you’re a sucker for a bit of history or nostalgia, you can easily find the tune on YouTube for a quick little listen.

We know that barrels were used to age and store beer back in the 1930s, (and even well before that), but what exactly is a barrel-aged brew today?

According to craftbeer.com, “A wood- or barrel-aged beer is any lager, ale or hybrid beer, either a traditional style or a unique experimental beer, that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. This beer is aged with the intention of imparting the unique character of the wood and/or the flavor of what has previously been in the barrel. Beer may be aged in wooden barrels (new or previously used to age wine or spirits), or chips, spirals and cubes may be added to the conditioning tanks that normally house beer. A variety of types of wood are used including oak, apple, alder, hickory and more. The interior of most barrels is charred or toasted to further enhance the flavor of the wood.”

Look no further than your local grocery store or specialty beer shop to find a boatload of barrel-aged brews to choose from. Even some of our local breweries, such as Buried Acorn, have purchased barrels to use in their brewing process to create beers that impart a unique flavor depending on what was fermented and stored in the barrels previously. It may sound easy, but it’s actually an art-form in and of itself to create a one-of-a-kind barrel-aged brew. As well, good quality barrels themselves are not exactly easy to come by and can be quite expensive to obtain.

What type of barrels are used? Well, in addition to the type of wood used, anything really —Wine, Tequila, Bourbon— can be used to infuse a brew. Different combinations of wood and different types of beverages stored in each barrel, along with different manufacturers of each said beverage and their unique recipes gives rise to a vast array of different possibilities when choosing to age a brew in barrels. Using simple mathematics, the different combinations can almost be endless, with an endless number of outcomes as well! In addition, not every type of beer brewed will be a match for aging in barrels, but experimentation can be exceptionally exciting both for brewers and consumers.

Barrel-aged brews will therefore always be more expensive because they are infinitely more expensive to create and there are limited quantities available. Year-to-year, and batch-to-batch, the flavors will never quite be the same either, thus also increasing the uniqueness of each brew. With these beers being in high-demand it thereby forces an increase in price. It’s all about supply and demand! Basic economics at its finest!

Whiskey Barrels – My Pick: Oscar by New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins, CO. (8.8% ABV) This dark sour ale is aged in blackberry-flavored whiskey barrels. This beer is part of New Belgium’s Wood Cellar Reserve series – a collection of rare, small-batch wild and sour ales. The brewery boasts that this beer contains the longest, continuous souring culture in America and once transferred from barrel to bottle it will continue to develop in the bottle for up to 5 years. Oscar has lovely and distinct blackberry notes, oak from the barrels itself, with a pucker-finish. Wonderfully unique and delicious! I was able to taste this on draft at a New Belgium tap-takeover at The Evergreen in downtown Syracuse this past April. It can be found at various places throughout the US, including Texas, Georgia & Oregon, so stick this one on your radar during your travels this summer.

Bourbon Barrels – My Pick: Bourbon Barrel Aged Dragonslayer 2018 by Middle Ages Brewing, Syracuse, NY. (11.7% ABV) As one of our hometown hero breweries, Middle Ages also has barrel-aged brew producing capabilities and they have perfected their art and continue to deliver year after year. This stout has a hefty alcohol content, but drinks quite smooth. It’s warming with prevalent bourbon notes and hints of dark fruits up front, but then moves on to chocolate notes and finishes with coffee flavors. Truly mouth-wateringly complex! Middle Ages states that they use large amounts of chocolate, roasted barley, wheat and caramalt to brew the beer, then after fermentation it is transferred to Heaven Hill bourbon barrels where it is aged for 10 months. The barrels lend flavors of charred oak, vanilla, and of course, bourbon. A great second choice would be Barrel-Aged 4Beans by Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn, NY (11% ABV) with it’s LOADS of vanilla.

Brandy Barrels – My Pick: Double Barrel Dubbel by Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY (9.9% ABV). Ommegang takes its Abbey Dubbel craft beer and ages it for 6 months in both bourbon and brandy casks. Because it’s a blend of two barrels, there are layers and complexities throughout each sip. Dark fruits dominate – Raisin notes are what I straight up tasted, but you also might find other notes of both caramel and molasses. It is quite boozy.

Tequila Barrels – My Pick: Más Agave by Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. (10% ABV). This Gose tastes like a very strong margarita! Lots of lime throughout. Founders brewed this beer with agave, lime and sea salt, then aged the beer in tequila barrels for an unspecified length of time. A great beer to have on a hot summer’s day or complimenting your Taco Tuesday plans! p.s. you should be able to find this at Wegmans!

Rum Barrels – My Pick: Rum Barrel Aged Pumking by Southern Tier Brewing Company, Lakewood, NY (13.4% ABV). Interestingly enough, you’ll find that rum barrels are great agers of pumpkin beers! (Something to look forward to as summer turns into fall!) The rum is prevalent, compliments the pumpkin, is totally enjoyable, and goes down REALLY easy after a few sips. With such a high ABV, you’ll want to pace yourself with this one. A good second choice, (and is another pumpkin beer!) is Roadsmary’s Baby by Two Roads Brewing Company, Stratford, CT (6.8% ABV).

Wine Barrels – My Pick: Preternatural Cuvée 3 by Stillwater Artisanal, Brooklyn, NY (8.8% ABV). There are actually 5 different brews in the series, all labeled by number. Number 3 was my favorite. This is a barrel-aged farmhouse ale brewed with cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and viognier grapes, then aged for 3 years in French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels. It is unbelievably tasty. It drinks much like a fine white wine would – it was oaky but with a very dry finish. This is a very limited series that I was able to try at Branching Out Bottle Shop’s in-store tasting event this past March. Keep your eyes peeled for more upcoming tasting events with this excellent small business located in Township 5 Camillus. A great second choice would be Ramble on Rose by High Water Brewing, Lodi, CA (6% ABV) – this unique brew is aged in wine barrels for 12 months with blueberries, rose buds, rosehips and pink peppercorns. It’s sour, complex, and the rosehips lend a distinct flavor

Currently, I also have another wine-barreled beer on deck at home – Mockery Brewing Company’s Russian Imperial Stout from Denver, CO (12.7% ABV). I received this beer in a trade with a friend in Colorado, so it’s not likely to be found around these parts. This stout is aged in cabernet wine barrels for 14 months and the brewers describe it as having flavors of “bright red wine grape notes that mingle with dried cherries, dark chocolate, and African berry forward coffee.” I’m pretty psyched to crack this open someday soon! (and I feel very lucky to have beer-loving friends in far-off places!)

I should also mention that many barrel-aged brews can, in fact, be cellared (remember, consistently dark and cool – 50-55°F!)  and will continue to age gracefully. A suggestion is to purchase two or more barrel-aged beers, drink one now, and then open the second a year later to see how the beer has continued to develop and mature.

Roll out those barrel-aged beers, friends! Cheers!

Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!