Trends for barrel-aged beer at Idaho’s two-unit Boise Co-op Market seem to epitomize the overall developments for the category nationally. “We’re seeing more items than ever before, in a much wider variety of sizes and package formats,” says beer buyer Derek Bolton. “There’s a growing number of barrel-aged stouts, porters, barley wines, and sours, and even occasional IPAs, ambers, and Scotch ales aged in barrels.” To accommodate the expanding offerings, the stores dedicate an entire cooler door each to barrel-aged brews—about 50 SKUs in all—priced from $4 for a 16-ounce can to $60 for a 500-ml. bottle.
Retailers and brewers alike say that today’s beer aficionados can’t get enough of brews aged in wooden barrels and released in often limited quantities following months of anticipation. “Aging beer in a Bourbon barrel for a year is very similar to aging a fine wine or liquor in barrels,” explains Sandy Anaokar, vice president of marketing at Founders Brewing, which has produced the KBS brand for nearly 20 years. “Not only does the Bourbon barrel help impart common flavor notes such as vanilla and caramel, it also imparts the oaky characteristic of the wood,” she adds.
With a significant number of craft breweries now marketing barrel-aged brews, consumers have had easier access to the products in recent years than in the past. Some breweries, such as Founders, have been able to expand availability of their barrel-aged beers from limited releases to year-round offerings. And now, a plethora of used spirits barrels has helped fuel innovation within the segment, with beers aged in Tequila barrels among the more recent developments. “The continued interest in Tequila has allowed us to grow our product line to attract crossover consumers,” says Anaokar, who notes that Founders introduced Tequila barrel-aged Mas Agave beers earlier this year.
Sourcing of barrels from well-regarded distilleries or brands is now often highlighted by beer marketers. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s 2021 Goose Island Bourbon County stout, for example, to be released later this month, employed barrels from Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, and Buffalo Trace, while the Bourbon County Reserve Blanton’s stout was aged for 18 months in Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon barrels. Cocktail-inspired barrel-aged brews are also trending, such as Firestone Walker Brewing’s recently unveiled Tequila Sunrise and Mezcal Limon offerings as part of its vintage series.
A shift away from traditional large-format bottles to smaller packages has been particularly noticeable in the barrel-aged beer space. Surly Brewing released barrel aged variants to its popular Darkness Russian imperial stout in 16-ounce cans last year, and according to vice president of marketing Bill Manley, consumer response was very positive. “They disappeared quickly from the shelves,” he says. Manley and others note that for many consumers, the smaller packages are easier on their wallets than 750-ml. or 22-ounce bottles. “They’re easier to take a risk on,” he says.
Goose Island Beer Co. president Todd Ahsmann notes that while the pandemic impacted on-premise sales of barrel-aged beers, off-premise sales were strong as consumers worked through their personal beer cellars. “Last year’s Bourbon County release proved demand is stronger than ever,” he says, noting that some retailers sold out in record time. Overall, though, Ahsmann concedes that with the proliferation of barrel-aged beers, “the shining star of some classic producers has waned as others grow.” Laz Luis, the beer director at New Jersey’s Sparrow Wine & Liquor Co., agrees. “In the past, I would have to hide new releases, but today, barrel-aged beers aren’t selling like they used to,” the retailer says. He attributes the slowdown to the popularity of hard seltzers and RTDs.
While the barrel-aged beer category has evolved in recent years, retailers like Bolton believe that the changes can only help the segment. “With so many talented brewers out there, there will be no shortage of unique and creative takes on barrel aging,” he says. “And with alternative packaging emerging, the category is becoming more accessible to everyone. For me, that’s something to look forward to.”