The best of craft beer looks a lot like brewing in 1920. "Barrel aging is the current hot trend in American craft beer," says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster for Brooklyn Brewery and editor-in-chief of the Oxford Companion to Beer. Until recent years, Americans were preoccupied with ultrahoppy, bitter India pale ales, but increasingly, craft brewers are turning to wood aging. Just last year, barrel-aged beers nearly outnumbered the leading category — the IPA — at the Great American Beer Festival.
A century ago, beer was stored in wood barrels. Then, soon after Prohibition, came stainless-steel tanks, and wood pretty much went the way of the woolly mammoth. But barrels are back in the brewhouse, thanks in large part to experiments that began at Chicago's Goose Island Beer Company, which released its first Bourbon County Brand Stout, a chocolatey, wood-kissed imperial stout, in 1992.
It's taken other American brewers a while to follow Goose Island and make a palatable barrel-aged beer. In the 1990s, many of the early adopters used beers with ever-higher alcohol content, since wood is known to mellow the booze. The result: strong brews that had to be drunk like brandy, in four-ounce glasses. However, as we found in our tasting with Oliver, the newer barrel-aged beers are often supple enough to drink in pints. Beer aged in barrels takes on the flavor of the wood, like oak or chestnut, and adopts the character of the barrel's previous tenant, whether it's a fruity nose from a port-wine barrel or the vanilla from bourbon casks. The aging process also smooths out the alcohol, drops some bitterness, and adds winelike complexity because of microorganisms present in the barrels. When shopping for these beers, remember that the barrel can unexpectedly alter the flavor profile, meaning a sweet cherry lambic can get a bit dry with strong vanilla flavors and a bitter Russian imperial stout can go all chocolatey and smooth. These novel flavors are why these beers are worth buying — and why craft brewers are pursuing the barrel. "Barrel aging is now an American signature," says Oliver.
Here are 25 aged brews to try:
Credit: Photograph by Travis Rathbone