Oak aged beers

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Aug 15, 2010
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A whisky’s or spirit’s flavor is a manifestation of a great many
variables. Everything from the grains, the malting process, the water,
and the streams that the water flows though, to the climate and
geology can greatly affect the final product’s flavor and ultimate
character. Although this is not uncommon of other distilled,
fermented, or brewed beverages, one aspect of a whisky’s production
that is seemingly ingrained into whisky culture more than any other is
barrel ageing.

For hundreds of years, barrel aging has enchanted the hearts and
palates of sherry, wine, whisky and rum lovers all across the world.
But our fascination and infatuation with wood aged beverages has lead
to a most dubious usage; barrel aged beer.

Before the invention of steel kegs or casks, large quantities of beer
was traditionally housed in wooden barrels, and often served straight
from them. This was primarily due to necessity at the time, but now
brewers all over the world, most prominently in America, are maturing
their beers in oak barrels for the purpose of flavor!

There are more barrel aged beers available to the public now then
there have ever been in the industrialized world, and brewers are
utilizing the massive variety of barrels available to them to impart
unique and exciting flavors and aromas in their beers.

A great example of what fresh oak can do it the Innis & Gunn Original
Oak Aged Beer. It is brewed in Scotland, then is aged for 30 days in
fresh American White Oak barrels from Bourbon County Kentucky. From
there the beer rests in a marrying tun for a further 47 days to allow
the flavors imparted by the oak to smooth and mellow. The result is a
velvety Scottish Pale Ale with creamy caramel, toffee, and vanilla
flavors that glide gently over your palate and bring a touch of sweet
oak and spice.

Brewers aren’t only using fresh oak though; Ithaca Beer Co’s Excelsior
Old Habit is a strong rye ale aged in just that, used rye barrels.
This beer is brewed with a variety of rye malts, and is partially
fermented in Kentucky Rye Barrels then carefully blended. What emerges
is a richly woody rye beer with the distinct flavors of sweet rye
malts, and crisp rye whisky.

Taking it one step further are the mad geniuses at BrewDog in
Scotland. They have created a series of whisky barrel aged Imperial
Stouts called Paradox. They begin with their big 10% abv stout, and
then age it for 6 months in Oak Barrels that once matured The Arran
Malt, Smokehead, Springbank, Longrow, Bowmore, Macallan, and other
fine whiskies. Each Paradox beer is sold individually and carries the
distinct and unique flavors inherent of that specific whisky barrel in
which it was aged. This is magical stuff.

With heritage in mind, one of the world’s most infamous Distilleries
has formed a thrilling bond with one of the greatest Scottish
Breweries, Harviestoun. Highland Park’s barrels are used to create the
highly sought after Harviestoun Ola Dubh (which is Gaelic for engine
oil). Harviestoun ages its engine oil-like stout in a variety of
Highland Park barrels and thus releases the Ola Dubh as Vintages 12,
16, 18, 25, 30 and 40. Each imparts the distinct flavors of that
vintage of Highland Park Whisky – remarkable beer.

Probably my favorite example of oak aged beers is the Goose Island
Bourbon County Stout. It may have richer and creamier bourbon barrel
flavors than that of any beer on this entire planet. The 13% Imperial
Stout rests in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels for 100 days creating a
densely black beer with a lush and creamy dark mocha colored head.
Flavors of charred oak, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, dried fruit and
smoke radiate massively from this beer with silky and masterful poise.
There is no end to what brewers can really create when oak finds its
way into the equation.

To prove that point, I will introduce probably the most famous barrel
aged beer, and also one of the world’s most expensive. The Samuel
Adams Utopias commands prices upwards of $300 USD, is 27% abv, and is
unlike any beer you have ever had. Its production process involves
ageing the beer in various barrels such as bourbon, Madeira, and
brandy, then blending them with older vintages dating back to 1994.
Sound familiar? This is truly a world class beer and shows what
brewers are capable of when let loose on some fine oak barrels.

Look beyond the stereotypical brands and flavors of beer, and you can
discover something truly remarkable. Now is the most innovative,
ingenious, and exhilarating time to enjoy real beer. Brewers all
across the works are coloring outside the lines by brewing with unique
ingredients, utilizing new and creative processes, and incorporating
previously unthought-of techniques to create beer. The world of barrel
aged beers is really a fabulous one to venture, and I highly recommend
it. Cheers!

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