Bill Murnighan marvels at the many options that craft beer lovers enjoy today. The beer buyer at Bailey’s Taproom in Portland, Oregon, says that variety is particularly apparent in the barrel-aged beer segment, where brewers are experimenting with all manner of barrels, as well as new ingredients. “It seems like nothing is off the table when it comes to barrel-aged beer these days,” says Murninghan, pointing to the range of spirits and wine barrels used for aging that help “create an infinite combination of fun flavors.” And for retailers like him, cask-aged brews can provide a handsome return, as they’re often priced at $15 or more for a large-format bottle.
The consumer quest for flavor variety and enhanced education in the art of brewing are helping to fuel the growth of barrel-aged beers. Phil Markowski, partner and brewmaster at Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford, Connecticut, points to the enthusiasm for new beers and styles as a driving force in the growth of barrel-aged brews. With barrel-aged beer experience dating back to his homebrewing days of the 1980s, Markowski also notes that craft beer fans are discovering European beers and “barrel aging is becoming a part of that discovery.”
David Walker, cofounder of Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, California, says rising interest in beer-making techniques is also contributing to the segment’s popularity surge. “Barrels have played a role with beer at various points over the centuries, and seeking out those flavors is a journey,” he says. “When you add the dynamic of spirits barrels to the equation, then the flavor opportunities become infinite.” Walker points to flavors like dark chocolate, coconut, caramel and tobacco, which are derived from the casks Firestone Walker uses to produce its wood-aged brews.
Kansas City, Missouri–based Boulevard Brewing Co. has emerged as a leader in barrel-aged beer production. “Our first release of a barrel-aged beer was in 2008 with Bourbon Barrel Quad,” says ambassador brewer Jeremy Danner. “At the time, we’d been brewing The Sixth Glass, a Belgian-style quad, for nearly two years, but wanted to find ways to make it more complex. Whiskey barrel–aging with tart cherries did the trick.” Today, Boulevard produces nine barrel-aged brews, with the year-round Bourbon Barrel Quad—priced at $12 to $14 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles—the top seller.
Firestone Walker’s involvement in barrel-aged beers, meanwhile, rose from its roots in the wine industry. Walker’s partner Adam Firestone is the grandson of Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Vineyard in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “The brewery was started in a vacant barrel room at the family vineyard,” Walker explains. “Wood was part of our beginnings.” This year, Firestone Walker will release six barrel-aged beers ($9.99 a 12-ounce bottle), including the highly anticipated Parabola, aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels, and Anniversary ale, aged in a mix of Bourbon barrels.
Two Roads has been producing barrel-aged beers since it opened in 2012, and the company uses several types of casks. Offerings include the Bourbon barrel–aged Conntucky Lightnin’ sour mash ale, rum barrel–aged Roadsmary’s Baby pumpkin ale and white wine barrel–aged Worker’s Stomp saison. A few years ago the brewery even aged its Unorthodox Russian Imperial stout in an aquavit barrel. According to Markowski, Roadsmary’s Baby is the top seller of the lot, generally priced at $11.99 a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles or cans.
Even Chimay Grand Reserve, the annual release from Belgium, has begun experimenting with barrel aging. For the past three years, brewer Bières de Chimay has aged a small volume of the annual Christmas brew in barrels—first oak, then Cognac and, most recently, rum barrels. Chimay Grande Réserve Barrel Aged Rhum edition is priced at $45 a 25.4-ounce bottle. According to Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen, president of Manneken-Brussel Imports, purchasers of the special-edition brew tend to be collectors or consumers searching for a special gift, “just like a fine wine.”
Barrels of Fun
As with other beer styles popularized by craft brewers, barrel-aged beers now include many variations. “More and more brewers are producing barrel-aged beers, and they’re not just using Bourbon barrels—they’re using Tequila, gin and wine barrels,” says Ferdinand Sneed, beer manager at the flagship Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio. The store’s cask-aged beers can be priced as high as $20 a 750 ml. of Founders Brewing Co.’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS). Kenny Cooper, beer buyer at the five-unit Garfield’s Beverages in the Chicagoland area, adds, “Variety is becoming the hallmark of barrel-aged beers.” Garfield’s stores stock 50 or more of the beers, generally priced from $12.99 a 22-ounce bottle of Clown Shoes’ Crasher in the Rye to $89.99 for the 2015 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Rare. “There’s no ceiling for these beers,” Cooper adds.
The growth in Bourbon and rye whiskey in recent years has resulted in more availability of used Bourbon and rye barrels for beer making, as producers of those whiskies only use a barrel once. But Markowski of Two Roads notes that rum barrels—which are used over and over again by distilleries—are harder to come by. He adds that the variety of spirits barrels now used in aging beer could stem from a little bit of “one-upmanship. At first, it was oak barrels, then it was Bourbon barrels, and now it’s all sorts of whiskies and other spirits.”
Firestone Walker, meanwhile, enlists the help of local winemakers when blending a variety of barrel-aged brews for its annual Anniversary ale. “Winemakers are reflexively more comfortable with blending than brewers,” Walker explains. “Brewers are programmed for infinite consistency, whereas winemakers allow themselves some margin for surprise in the outcome of each vintage. Having winemakers in the room when we blend our barrel-aged Anniversary beer adds a dynamic that we couldn’t conjure in a room of only brewers.”
Bridge to Bourbon
Brewers and retailers agree that the popularity of whisk(e)y, especially Bourbon, and other spirits is contributing to the growth of barrel-aged beers. “Bourbon barrel–aged beers are decadent, robust and have a higher alcohol content than other beers,” says Cooper. “They provide a bridge from beer to Bourbon.” Boulevard’s Danner notes, “Personally, I love Bourbon and whisk(e)y, but it’s not something I necessarily want to drink every day, so it’s nice to reach for a beer that captures the essence of whisk(e)y barrels.”
Murnighan of Bailey’s Taproom says the use of other types of spirits barrels can also entice consumers. “When they see, ‘aged in gin barrels’ on a label, it causes them to question what it’s all about, since gin is usually a clear spirit,” he explains. Brewers Markowski and Walker add that the growth in craft distilleries is also helping to build buzz around barrel-aged brews. “It’s all part of the renaissance in flavor in beer and spirits,” Markowski says. “People want new flavor experiences.”
Retailers generally describe barrel-aged beer consumers as craft beer aficionados and collectors. “Tracking down these beers can be time-consuming and costly,” Murnighan remarks. “The consumer of barrel-aged beers has a collector mentality and expendable income and frequents bottle-share events,” in search of rare and unique beers, many of which are barrel-aged. But Boulevard’s Danner comments that demographics for barrel-aged beer consumers are widening as the products themselves become more diverse. “With the crazy crossover we’re seeing from spirits and wine drinkers into the beer world, it’s tough to identify just one demographic,” he says.
As barrel-aged beers increase in popularity and volume, retailers and bar operators are supporting them with merchandising and promotional efforts. Garfield’s, for example, features special sections in its stores for barrel-aged beers. “We encourage our customers to take their time and browse the selection,” Cooper says. But sales staff help is also required. “Sometimes, barrel-aged beers can be a hand-sell,” he adds, noting that the release of the local Goose Island Bourbon County stout in late November is “a busy week at our stores.” The stores typically raffle off rights to purchase bottles of the coveted brew, rather than selling out their limited allotment to collectors who “camp out at the store” the night before the Black Friday release.
Other venues also host regular events focused on barrel-aged brews. Jungle Jim’s has hosted a “Barrel-Aged Beer Bash” for the past 11 years. For $45 a ticket, attendees can sample from 80 to 100 different cask-aged beers. “It’s one of our most popular events,” Sneed say. Bailey’s Taproom, meanwhile, celebrates its anniversary every July with a Barrel-Aged Beer Fest, featuring 32 cask-aged brews on tap. “I hoard beers for the event throughout the year and put them on draft all at once,” Murnighan explains. For the last two years, the bar has collaborated on cask-aged brews for the event with local breweries such as Alesong, Breakside and pFriem.
Retailers and brewers agree that barrel-aged beers are here to stay. In fact, in October Two Roads broke ground on a new facility in Stratford that will be dedicated to barrel-aged brews. Walker says the opportunity for barrel-aged beers is “endless,” while Danner adds, “The sky is the limit as brewers become more innovative and adventurous.”