Whiskey to beer: the long and curious life of a barrel
Many Irish brewers are barrel-ageing beer in whiskey and wine barrels for more complex layers of taste
Ageing beer in barrels is labour- and time-intensive. File photograph: Getty Images
Barrel-ageing has been a thing in craft beer over the past number of years. Whiskey, wine or any previously filled barrel can create complex layers of flavours in a beer left to infuse over months or years, often with hints of oaky or charred wood also finding its way into the taste.
Scottish brewers Innis & Gunn came under fire recently for breaking up barrels and sprinkling bits into the beer – not the same thing as barrel-ageing, some argue. And you’d have to agree that there is something special about the life cycle of a handmade barrel, spanning sometimes 30 years and more, while travelling across many countries, many different liquids living inside. There’s also a uniqueness: every barrel is different, so you can never make exactly the same beer again. Every year Founders, for example, release their Kentucky Breakfast Stout, which is aged in oak bourbon barrels, and every year it’s slightly different.
Ageing beer in barrels, however, is labour- and time-intensive – putting all that beer into barrels then taking it all out again – and it takes some skill in perfecting the right blend and balance of flavours from new and old. Plenty of Irish breweries have barrel-aged offerings – which tend to be on the higher end, alcohol wise – while it’s also going the other way, such as the Jameson’s Caskmates series, in which whiskey barrels used by the brewery Franciscan Well are later used by Jameson to finish whiskey.
Otterbank Brett Brux Stout
Otterbank Brewing, headed by Dec Nixon of YellowBelly, specialises in limited-edition, mixed-culture beers. Brett Brux Stout has been aged in oak Pinot Noir barrels and has lots of flavour to explore – cocoa, liquorice and dark fruits – and a big alcohol heat at 9.9 per cent.
Rascals Chardonnay Saison
Rascals’ Chardonnay Saison (6.3 per cent) comes in a 660ml bottle and is part of its project sour series. The beer has been aged in Chardonnay barrels, and it’s delicately carbonated, with a vinous quality – oaky yet tart and with a lovely light fruitiness and crisp finish, definitely worth a try.