A Guide to Barrel Aging Beer
1. STICK TO FRESHLY EMPTIED BARRELS.
Ideally, you want to fill your barrel with beer immediately after it has been emptied or it risks drying out the barrel. As wood dries, it shrinks, which means the staves will contract, and the barrel will probably leak when you fill it.
If you need to repair a leaky barrel, simply add hot water and slosh. Initially, the hot water will leak out but the wood & staves will eventually rehydrate after a few attempts. This process may wash away some of the barrels woody, vinous character so it’s best to avoid this process if possible.
2. USE SPIRIT BARRELS FOR CLEAN BEERS.
Wood gives barrel aged spirits their beautiful amber color, as well as notes of vanilla and coconut. When you age a beer in a spirit barrel, the beer takes on the aromas, flavors, and woody overtones from the barrel.
Since spirits are high in alcohol, the barrels they inhabit will be pretty much devoid of microscopic life forms. Whiskey barrels are perfect for aging clean stouts with hints of bourbon and oak. Tequila barrels will deliver a spicy kick, making them ideal for aging wheat beers.
3. USE WINE BARRELS FOR SOUR BEERS.
Used wine barrels make fantastic sour and wild beers for a few reasons:
- Since wood is porous, it admits a slow trickle of oxygen over time. That oxygen, along with certain sugars within the wood itself, provides a cozy environment for Brettanomyces. Even beers that aren’t Brett-dominant usually benefit from the manner in which Brett metabolizes by-products of the other bugs.
- Wine barrels are more mellow than spirit barrels, allowing your beer to really shine through. Whereas, spirit barrels like whiskey or rum may outshine the beer.
- Wine is low enough in alcohol that bugs such as Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus can survive within the staves. Brettanomyces growth is one of the reasons that winemakers have to retire their barrels after a period of time.
- Also, vintners will often refill wine barrels multiple times, drawing out a lot of the wood’s raw character before it accepts your beer.