Quick, name a few of the essential ingredients of beer off the top of your head. Malted barley? Check. Water? But of course. We bet you also remembered hops. Now give yourself a pat on the back if you thought of yeast.
But for some beers, there’s another key ingredient, one that’s not talked about as much: wood. As in, the stuff barrels are made from.
For brewers, barrels can be magic vessels. They do all sorts of things to enhance beers. They might add vanilla and spice notes to a dark imperial stout. Or they could raise a sour brew’s tartness to a dazzling, thirst-quenching level.
For dedicated suds fans, barrel-aged beers can be a treat. Many are rare, experimental or seasonal options. But it’s worth some sleuthing — and our in-store experts are always happy to help you find what you’re after.
So, would you (or should that be “wood” you?) like to learn more about barrel-aged beers? Keep reading!
What is barrel aging?
Simple: It’s letting a brew spend some quality time in a barrel.
Wooden — and especially oak — barrels have been used to store beverages for centuries. And any liquid that’s kept inside one for a period of time picks up interesting aromas and flavours from the wood. Think of a barrel like a reverse tea bag!
Why do brewers barrel-age beers?
Also easy: flavour. Rolling out the barrel can be the first step to giving their beers a special aromatic and tasty twist.
What kinds of barrels do brewers use to age beer?
- Plain wooden barrels — These contribute subtle woody flavours (go figure!) and need time to add their influence to the beer inside them.
- Charred wooden barrels — Flames are run over the inside of these vessels to burn the wood. They add tasty notes of vanilla and smoke (more on those below).
- Used spirit barrels — Scotch, bourbon and other kinds of whisky barrels are popular with brewers. They can infuse beer with caramel, vanilla and smoke aromas, and a mellow, whisky-like edge. Brewers also age beer in former rum barrels.
- Used wine barrels — Wooden casks that once held wine are another tasty option. These might have been the former home of table wine or fortified wine. Lambic beers, for example (more on those later) can be aged in former port and sherry barrels.
How does aging time affect beer?
When beer ages, it changes — and the chemistry behind this is complicated. Long story short: Hops aromas recede over time, while malt flavours concentrate and strengthen. And other, new flavours seem to pop up like magic.
The wait is worth it. After a few months (or even years) in a barrel, brews get mellower and often more complex.
Is barrel fermenting the same as barrel aging?
Nope. Some beers are barrel-fermented as opposed to barrel-aged. These days, fermentation mostly happens in big steel tanks. But a few beers, including certain Belgian-style ales, are still brewed in old-timey wooden vessels.
What flavours do barrel-aged beers have?
Oak imparts lots of tasty notes to suds, especially when it’s charred. Think vanilla, caramel, toasty aromas and smoke. You might even get a bit of cinnamon, rose and/or coconut.
(Want to impress your friends? Tell them that vanillin — which is a phenolic aldehyde, chemically speaking — is present in both oak and vanilla. In other words, when you smell a hint of vanilla in a barrel-aged beer, your brain is recognizing the chemical that it associates with vanilla. Pretty cool, eh?)
While these are some of the most noticeable, common flavours and aromas in barrel-aged beers, there are others. Some brewers use barrels made from other woods, including poplar, chestnut, beechwood and cedar, which add their own unique twists.
It’s also important to note that wood is porous. That means a tiny amount of oxygen sneaks into the barrel over time. Sometimes, it’s enough to give a wild yeast strain — like Brettanomyces — a chance to thrive. These yeasts can have a big influence on beer, making it dry, tart and even a little funky. You’ll know what we mean after you sample a tasty sour.
What styles of beer can be barrel aged?
While brewers can (and do) age all sorts of beer in oak, they’re especially keen on the styles below. These show off the special qualities that wood brings to the table.
- Barrel-aged stouts and porters often have concentrated chocolate flavours. Notes of wintery spices, like cinnamon and nutmeg, add complementary complexity. Some popular versions spend time in former bourbon barrels, where they pick up hints of sweet Kentucky-style whisky.
- Saisons and other sour beers are at the other end of the flavour spectrum. These are the sour, funky ones we mentioned earlier. You can thank special yeast strains for creating these deliciously dry, thirst-quenching, warm-weather beers.
- One specific type of sour beer is lambic (pronounced “lam-BEEK”). It originally hails from Belgium. This wheat beer ferments in old-fashioned wooden barrels, where it meets wild yeasts and other micro-organisms that float in the air. Some lambics are flavoured with fruit; the ones called gueuze are not.
- Flanders-style red and brown ales are two other old-school, sour beer styles from — guess where? — Belgium. They feature a touch of fruity sweetness and a tiny, tangy hint of vinegar. For admirers, they’re a unique and delicious experience.
Barrel-aged beer and food pairings
With barrel-aged stouts and porters, lean in to their deeply sweet and rich character. Serve them with something indulgent (and ideally chocolatey), like our Fudgy Chocolate Stout Brownies or Maple-Glazed Stout Gingerbread Bundt Cake.
Got a saison or another sparkling sour beer? These are pretty food-friendly, so you’ve got options. One school of thought says these beers are great with Southeast Asian cuisines, so pair them with a fragrant Thai Chicken Curry with Squash & Ale. Or go in a very different direction and have them with a selection of rich cheeses.
If your lambic is fruity, pair it with something sweet. The complexity and acidity are practically begging for pie. And if you have a funky-sour gueuze, introduce it to a stylistic sibling: deliciously stinky cheese or mushrooms. Wait! How about a pizza with both?
Finally, with their unmistakable hint of vinegar, Flanders-style brown and red ales are delicious with fish. And we mean homemade fish and chips to be precise. But any fry is worth a try, especially our All-Canadian Poutine with Brown Ale Gravy.