There are times when you experience something so profound that you sit up and take a good, hard look at your previous thoughts. Gathering after lunch at the GABF, a table of six judges sat down and looked over the style guidelines for the flight of beers we were about to evaluate. The guidelines were read aloud. These were beers that have “been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood”.
“Like Budweiser,” I joked.
Well, yes, like Budweiser. The way the style was written allowed for a fairly wide swath of interpretation on the part of America’s microbrewers. Not that we were expecting it. More than one of us was expecting a full-scale palate bludgeoning by a flight of bourbon-barrel aged imperial stouts. But this isn’t 2003. A multicoloured flight was laid out before us. That was only the first sign.
Each beer came with a small label explaining what it was. We did, after all, have to know what components we were looking for. We had, I believe, eleven of them and they were all different. And not a single one of them was a bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout. So much for the bludgeoning.
The diversity was outstanding. The first beer I tasted was labeled (albeit in code) as a “sour brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels on cherries”. In fact, a lot of different wine barrels were used in this flight. There were also a lot of base styles, from amber ale to imperial stout and back again. The choice of barrels was quite diverse. I thought the code sheet for the descriptions was being fanciful when it talked about different types of oak, different whiskeys and wines, and other flavourings like vanilla beans. It wasn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if the code sheet was only compiled after the entries had been evaluated, not before, and every single thing on the code sheet was in the competition somewhere.
At the end, after we’d selected the three beers to move onwards to the next round, I was dumbfounded. The variety, and the quality represented, was so far beyond my expectations. Based on Ratebeer hype, one would hardly think there was anything to barrel-aged beers except for bourbon-barrel imperial stouts and maybe a few whacko experiments with wine barrels and/or barley wines. Aside from a few truly astonishingly well-crafted examples, most of these I’d come across were boring, unbalanced me-too beers totally unworthy of the attention slathered upon them.
Times have changed. If what I saw last week was any indication, variety in barrel-aged beers will soon be coming to a brewpub near you. These first few brave brewers – the Russian Rivers, the Jolly Pumpkins – they’re breaking new ground. But other brewers are demonstrating that they do not intend to wait around to pick up on this concept. Here’s the really good part – this is a concept that is totally open to interpretation. You can only do so many things with an IPA, right? Ditto that bourbon-barrel imperial stout stuff from 2003. But there are so many different permutations out there in terms of barrels, base styles and additional fruits or flavourings that for once a trend could develop in the American brewing industry that doesn’t result in a neverending slew of pretenders and more dismal forms of knockoffs. Every brewer can go their own way on this one.
It’s been that way for years, of course. The very idea of the “barrel-aged” as a style has certainly been controversial but one key element that has defined the concept is the viewpoint that barrels can and should be used for flavouring.
This is not the same viewpoint that brewers have traditionally held. Beers were aged in barrels because wood was the easiest vessel to make and hold beer in. They didn’t have stainless steel tanks in the middle ages. As such, some beers do make rather sketchy claim to being barrel-aged beers. An oak-aged IPA, to me, is not a barrel-aged beer. It is an IPA. Aging in oak is traditional for the style. It’s true about a lot of styles – foreign stout, bitter, any form of old-school porter, kellerbier, altbier, lambic, Flemish sour, pilsner, saison…you see where I’m going with this. So in that regard, it is a bit of a misunderstanding to call these types of beers aged in regular old unflavoured wood “barrel-aged”. The barrel needs to be part of the flavour component and not to traditional style.
Truly new ideas are scarce, so you’ll probably start out as a traditional style, but if you take it in a direction that nobody else is doing, and probably never did, I could see that being a good argument. Like the cedar-aged IPAs in Japan. Yes, I know what the label on the bottle of Hitachino Japanese Classic says, but I have a tough time believing it.
There is a lot of new blood being breathed into what was always a bit of a fad style. The base concept of using barrels to screw around with beer flavours in non-traditional ways is finally starting to come into its own. And finally, I am happy to say I’ve learned, it’s not just a handful of big name micros doing it. This time next year, everyone will be doing it. And some very good things will come of it.