When executed properly, barrel aging can add layers upon layers of flavor and complexity to a beer. The best barrel-aged beers inspire the sort of fervent loyalty of which most breweries can only dream. Although there is a great deal of diversity within the style, their high-ABV makes them best savored at a leisurely pace. Much like a fine whiskey, a barrel-aged beer unfolds slowly, revealing the sort of subtle nuances that only time can deliver.
Barrel-aged beers have come a long way since their inceptions in the early 1990s. No longer are brewers limited to bourbon barrels, instead they experiment with casks that once contained rye whiskey, rum, or even red wine. From a luscious rum barrel-aged imperial stout from the Midwest to a spontaneously fermented number from Portland, Maine aged in French oak, the year’s best barrel-aged beers pushed this style to its limits for some truly impressive results.
Made with two kinds of Belgian chocolate and local coffee, this “rich tasting stout” with 12.3% ABV is so beloved that its “release is practically a national beer holiday,” according to Tucker Anders, who says the “incredible and abundant” flavors of “roasted coffee, sweet chocolate, hot bourbon and oak char almost overwhelm the palate.”
“Resurgam is a beer that could be served at a wine dinner and be right at home,” says Matt Osgood of this spontaneously fermented beer that matures for years in French oak barrels. It exhibits “a complexity in the aroma that elicits fruit and funk, the middle is a wave of textured tartness and earthiness, and the finish is crisp and dry.”
“Compared to bourbon barrel-aged stouts, this is a lot more complex and a bit harder to get a handle on,” writes Tobias Carroll of this 13.4% ABV offering in which the “sweeter part of the stout’s taste hits on one level, while the smokiness from the whisky makes its way to an entirely different part of the mouth.”
“This riff on a Belhaven-style Scottish ale has a base of two malted ryes aged for eight months in Templeton Rye barrels, resulting in a rich, caramel and spice-tinged slow sipper perfect for winter,” says Tom Thornton, who believes “A snifter of this would be killer with a plate of hard cheeses like Gouda and cheddar.”
This 10% ABV rum barrel-aged imperial stout is an “emblematic Minnesota beer” that “flows out of the can like a molasses milkshake” and “brings together everything that’s good about rum and everything that’s good about stouts,” writes Jerard Fagerberg.