Balance a Barrel on Your Palate: Barrel-Aged Beers

beer barrels
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

I recently engaged in discussion with a well-traveled brewer on beer palates in the United States. He told me there exists the perception that the Midwest beer palate is behind when compared to the West Coast. Immediately, I brought up German styles and argued that the West seems so focused on IBUs and blasting the tongue with unexpected flavors that something seems lost in the process. I find accentuating flavors that already exist in the malt, hops, yeast, and water to be the primary concern for a good beer before forcing a controlled outbreak of lactobacillus or pediococcus.

To my friends across the Mighty Mississippi, my point is not that your beers lack superb. Plenty of my favorites have come out of Colorado and Oregon. But for every great brewer there are hundreds of mediocre ones, and when it comes to big flavors, even the most experienced mash paddlers struggle to find balance. But if it’s unadulterated flavor you seek, you don’t have to be trendy. Some of the biggest flavors in beer today come from something so sexy that even the most enthusiastic Cerevisaphile (thanks Gregg Smith) grows weak in the knees at its mention. Supple curves, sweet aromas, and wrinkles of grain—imperfections accentuating beauty inherent—shape the barrels that bear the potent beers of vanilla sips and spicy accents.

Each barrel brings something different to the game. Brewmaster Matthew Gerdts of One Barrel Brewing discusses, “Oak will give a smooth vanilla character depending if you’re using toasted oak or straight American oak.” This flavor allows a bit of play with ingenuity on malt bills and aroma hops with fruitier notes. Then we have hickory, which most describe as woody in flavor, and other woods, like apple and alder, that make for a splash of charm. I struggle to understand how someone who sees the beauty of flirtations in flavor has an inferior palate to someone who craves lip-pursing tarts.

Back on barrels, these ancient practices go in and out of fashion regularly since aging in barrels isn’t something everyone, including well-known breweries, has the resources for. “It’s a lot of extra work for a brewery to really have a good barrel program…You gotta store these things for months to years,” says Matthew. His point is only half the battle. Though there are workarounds, a one-gallon oak barrel goes for almost $100. Most homebrewers are working with five-gallon batches, but they can split their wort to compare the flavors of carboy fermentation to the barrel. Now take into consideration that with each beer produced, the oak flavor will exponentially decrease, and you can see why beers that come from a barrel’s first spin cost as much as they do.

Let’s move on to the heavy hitters. As I was saying, I discussed the Midwest beer palate with a brewer who has worked with some recognizable names in the biz. I went out to visit him in Colorado only a few years ago, and had my first sour beer at Avery Brewing Company. My reaction to the unexpected tartness was less than favorable, though I’ve grown to appreciate the practice and find fondness toward the handful of brewers who have learned to balance the flavor with the beer. If shock value is what we aim for, then who can argue that Greg Hall of Goose Island Brewing in Chicago didn’t produce one of the biggest booms in the industry with his Bourbon County Stout in 1994.

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Now no one is saying that Greg was the first to age beer in a bourbon barrel, simply because it’s difficult to determine whether it wasn’t attempted a few times since the mid-1700s. However, when Greg blew his keg, voices cried for more. Those voices echoed loud and clear, and soon enough, far and wide.

Have you ever had a bourbon-barrel-aged beer? If you have, I’m sure you remember the flavor, and if you’ve had several, I’m sure you remember your first time just as you remember your first love. The gamut of flavor ranges from nothing short of boozy to something subtle that plays well with maybe a willamette hop and chocolate rye malts. I have to agree with Matthew when he says, “I don’t usually tend toward beer that’s too boozy. I like beer to taste like beer, not whiskey or bourbon. But I think those flavors do play well with different beer flavors.” As has been an ongoing theme is these articles, like life, beer is all about balance.

Today, you may very well find yourself disrupted by the new-world coliseum we’ve dubbed Washington D.C. Deep breath, sip a beer, balance. Aristotle’s golden mean, the desirable medium of two extremes. With beer as my guide, I see that the extremes do not work independent of other extremes, nor are they mutually exclusive. Corruption, ignorance, brashness, blatant disregard for the rules: a great beer has all these things, but you’d never know it. When a new rule is introduced, such as a bourbon barrel, we struggle with our initial experience. This isn’t right. It’s too much. How can anyone accept this?

But something happens, and our perceptions mold to the new reality. Though born out of necessity, it’s akin to a new idea. When cognitive dissonance occurs, we are left with four options to correct the disruption in what we know and what we are experiencing. We can change, we can justify, we can ignore, or we can balance. Cognitive dissonance is not holding two contradictory views, it’s the mental disruption felt when acknowledging that fact. Barrel-aged beers are “almost always the really big beers,” and they are not going anywhere.

As for the well-traveled brewer, we are still friends. And when it comes to proving the world wrong on the Midwest beer palate, I say we continue onward. I think of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Our love of beer is understood, not a passing lust to swing from one passion fruit to the next. Unlike Donne’s poem, neither love is more right, and the moment guides the individual to find their balance in their present.

Na zdrowie!

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.