One of the coolest aspects of craft beer and the craft beer movement is the opportunity to rediscover “lost” techniques or ingredients. Following the invention of refrigeration and the development of lagering, the popularity of pale, crisp, refreshing lager beers soared. Certain legal restrictions have also occurred over the years (Prohibition in America, the German purity laws in, you guessed it, Germany, poorly designed tax schemes in England) that gave lighter, crisper, paler, lower abv% beers an unfair market advantage, and many smaller, often family owned and operated establishments that brewed using recipes and techniques handed down from generation to generation disappeared, falling prey to shifting tastes, yes, but also lobbying by those who stood the most to gain from Big Corporate Fizzy Pale Beer (TM).
So now that the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, smaller breweries with a desire to experiment and rediscover their past are doing their research, recreating and updating lost styles, sourcing ingredients that fell in to disuse centuries ago, and relearning techniques that were supplanted by technological advances that made things cheaper and faster to do, if not always produced a better product. A great example? The use of wood in storing, transporting, and aging beer.
Back in the day, wood was used to construct pretty much everything used in the beer making process. Barrels, storage vats, mash tuns – pretty much everything that wasn’t put directly under an open flame (for reasons that need not be stated here) – was made of wood, the result of availability of materials, ease of construction, and durability. This wasn’t just the case with beer, of course – wine and distilled spirits were also closely linked to wood, and indeed, wood aging is still and has always been intricately linked to these two categories of alcoholic beverages.
The Cebruery’s Black Magic Woman Russian Imperial Stout
Enter the barrel. Wooden staves, cinched together with bands, became the gold standard for the storage, aging, transportation, and serving of beer. At some point, it was noticed that the type of wood used to produce the barrel contributed some elements of flavor and aroma to the finished product, as well as that reused barrels (that is, barrels that had formerly held spirits, wine, or another type of beer) could impart certain flavor elements from their previous inhabitants upon their new tenants, depending upon the number of times they’d been reused and the identity of the previous liquid. Distillers refer to the portion of spirit that is absorbed in to the wood of a fresh barrel as “the angels share,” lost to on high. Some spirits (such as Bourbon) are by definition aged only in fresh oak barrels; therefore, a ready supply of once-used, mildly infused barrels were widely available for craft beer, and these flavor notes that seeped in to the final product became desirable.
Historically, barrels were also the source of (usually) undesirable infections that rendered beer unpalatable, or at least unable to be sold at a premium. Wood is porous and very difficult to clean, and wild yeasts and certain strains of bacteria that took up residence in the barrels would emerge to ferment what sugars they could when a new fermentable liquid found its way in to the barrel. Sometimes, particularly in Belgian styles, this was done intentionally, with “special” barrels that imparted sourness or “funk” that was deemed pleasant or stylistically appropriate being used and passed down from generation to generation.
The industrial revolution resulted in cheaper, more widely available metal tanks which largely replaced wood in all the aforementioned uses, as metal was easier to clean, more resistant to infection, and could hold pressure (and thus be carbonated). Lost in the technological advancement, of course, were the flavor components contributed by the barrels and/or the wine or spirit that was in them before.
Which is why we brought it back! The Royal We, of course, not The Cebruery in particular. Today, brewers use barrels (or staves, chips, spirals, or some other piece of wood), typically oak, to impart that certain extra something to various styles. Wood aging can lend hints of cinnamon, vanilla, coconut, caramel, and roast to a beer, depending on if the wood was charred, what type of oak it is (French oak and American oak, for instance, impart very different flavors), and the period of time the wood is in contact with the beer. As was mentioned above, if the barrel was in previous contact with bourbon, whiskey, rum, wine, or some other spirit, elements of that will also make their way in to the beer. These particular types of notes, and the notes present in the aforementioned spirits, tend to play best with certain types of beer styles – generally, they are higher in alcohol, oftentimes darker, roastier, or hoppier than general, or fruitier (that is, Belgian sours or strong ales).
The Cebruery’s Black Saint and Sinner Lady
The four beers in our Kahoy Series run the spectrum of styles, utilizing oak aging in ways both traditional and experimental, to support flavors as well as to provide contrast to them. The first is The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a version of our Black Magic Woman Russian Imperial Stout. Black Magic Woman—part of our Brewer’s Reserve series (more on these releases in a future post)—is a viscous, opulent, midnight-hued beverage made with 11 different varieties of malt and four different types of hops. The malt interplay lend notes of chocolate, coffee, toast, toffee, and various dark fruits from plums to raisins. What could possibly add to this cornucopia of complexity? Aging it for two months on mildly toasted French oak that’s saturated with tawny port is where we decided to start. The French oak adds hints of vanilla and toasted coconut that interplay off the chocolate, coffee, and caramel already pungently expressed in the base beer, and the port adds hints of lighter fruits, grapes, cherries, and a slight nuttiness, a result of the oxidation in the fortified wine. The final beer is a bold, complex, and entirely original sipper that clocks in at a fierce 11.8% alcohol by volume. This is the sort of beer you could hide away on the anniversary of the birth of a child to share with him or her on their 18th birthday – it will only get better with age.
Norwegian Wood is a Belgian Strong Dark Ale produced with six different malts and two varieties of Belgian candi sugar. The use of a traditional Belgian ale yeast gives this beer a great deal of complexity, but we’re only getting started. We then ferment this beer a second time on Scandinavian lingonberries, moderately toasted French oak, and with a second, unique strain of yeast. The end result clocks in at 9.5% and showcases tart stone fruits, Belgian spices, and a deep ruddy hue suggestive of toffee and caramelized barrel sugars.
Our Black and White Porter is a take on our original Chocolate Hills Porter. How do we improve upon this well-loved classic? Freshly scraped Madagascar vanilla beans and heavily toasted American oak from a whiskey barrel impart flourishes of sweet, estery vanilla, char, and spicy, caramelized whiskey to a base beer already rich in flavor and character.
Finally, our Sweet Kentucky Belle proves that not every barrel aged beer has to be heavy handed or rich. The base beer for this Kahoy Series entry is our Golden Lady Tripel, another of our regular Brewmaster’s Reserve Series beers that’s pale in hue with hints of white pepper, coriander, pineapple, and mango but that showcases a dry, crisp, and light body with plenty of effervescence. You might have to taste it to believe it, but the contrast of the aforementioned with what’s imparted by aging the Golden Lady on bourbon-soaked medium toast American oak for six months is heavenly.
These four beers will be released seasonally, though not on as strict a schedule as some of our other seasonal releases. Getting the balance of flavors right in a barrel aged beer is as much luck and art as it is science, and for any number of reasons, sometimes these beers will be ready later than you expect them to be – maybe the angels just haven’t taken their share yet!
For questions about this blog post, brewing and beer inquiries, or just to say hi, you can email me at:
The Brewmaster: email@example.com