The Next Generation of Barrel-Aged Beer

 Photograph by Universal Images Group

Aging beer in bourbon barrels has long been popular with burly imperial stouts, due to the wood's ability to mellow the higher-alcohol brew. But brewers have discovered that everything from bitter IPAs to sour ales and Belgian-style tripels can benefit from wood aging. In addition to bourbon casks, which can overwhelm those lighter styles, brewers are turning to merlot, chardonnay, rum, and even aquavit barrels, adding new layers of flavor.

Take Nebraska Brewing. After the brewery made a pineapple-scented Belgian strong ale, "it took about a second till the idea to marry the beer with a chardonnay barrel entered my thoughts," says co-owner Paul Kavulak, of his Mélange à Trois.

Apple-brandy barrels give Golden Delicious, from New York's Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, a subtle tartness, and rum barrels add a hint of molasses-like sweetness to Rumpkin Ale, from Colorado's Avery Brewing. The result is a class of complex beers that are also friendly to mainstream drinkers.