Pop quiz! Don’t worry, it’s about beer. It’ll be fun.
How long should a stout be barrel-aged for?
A year, maybe? After all, that’s about how long it takes Goose Island to age what might be the most popular barrel-aged stout in the country. But here’s the rub: just because that beer takes a year to age doesn’t mean all of ‘em should. And the longer a beer ages in the barrel doesn’t necessarily make it taste better.
It’s time to throw out the conventional wisdom that links the length of time a beer is aged in a barrel to the best possible flavor. It’s an understandable theory. It seems logical that the longer a beer’s been aged, the higher the price, and the better the taste. But after speaking to two expert barrel-aging folks at Boulder, Colorado’s Avery and Grand Rapid, Michigan’s Founders, we learned it’s a little more complicated than that.
The myth about a beer being “better” the longer it spends time in a barrel likely has nothing to do with beer at all. “I think it’s a holdover from wine, scotch, and rum,” says Andy Parker, who’s been Avery’s Barrel Herder for 10+ years, and has produced standout brews like the bourbon-barrel coffee stout Tweak. “When you look at any scotch in the store, the older it is, the more expensive it’s going to be.”
Like scotch, barrel-aged beer has a tendency to be a bit pricey no matter how long it’s been in a warehouse. And that extra cost has a subconscious effect on our silly little brains. “If I buy it at an elevated price, I’m more likely to think, ‘Man, I spent $30 on it. It’s going to be incredible. I can’t believe they aged it for that long!’” Parker says. “I think we’re all inclined to do that. It’s really hard not to attribute positive things to the extra time it aged, and the cost.”
That’s not just Parker’s hunch. There’s real scientific backing for his theory, which was proven by some smartypants Cornell researchers. They found that when an all-you-can-eat buffet charged more money, people enjoyed the food more.
I think there are a lot of new brewers who haven’t learned to distinguish between sherry and port oxidation and soy sauce.”
But let’s put aside why we like older, more expensive barrel-aged beer and talk about why an older brew doesn’t mean a better one. If a beer’s been in a barrel for one year, surely it’ll taste better after year two, no?
To answer that question, we spoke to another brewer well-versed in barrel-aging, the Vice President of PPIL (Planning, Packaging, Inventory and Logistics/Lead Guitar) at Founders, and the guy who’s in charge of making KBS delicious for over a decade, Jason Heystek. “It’s a myth,” he says, of the pervasive theory. “If you’re a big fan of oxidized flavor components, then yes, you want to age it for another year.”
He was not saying that in a complementary way. But here’s where it gets a little tricky. Some oxidized flavors are delicious – sherry and port notes can improve certain beers. Others? It’ll make delicious beer smell like soy sauce.
Soy sauce is a fine addition to Chinese takeout, but you probably don’t want those aromas in a beer that cost you at least a Jackson. And it’s a common issue in barrel-aged beers. “If you let [beer] sit too long, oxidation can go from caramel, port, and other delightful flavors into soy sauce,” says Parker. “Based on my blind judging at Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer, I think there are a lot of new brewers who haven’t learned to distinguish between sherry and port oxidation and soy sauce. Because if I can go to the most prestigious barrel aging festival in the country and kick out 20% of the entries simply based on a soy sauce aroma that I know is from aging it for way too long, well…”.
Parker goes on to say that new brewers are trying their hardest to make the best beer possible, but that they’d likely have better luck taking the beer out of the barrel earlier. The good news is that he says they’ll likely come around with the help of experience. But it shows that even professional brewers are getting swept up in the allure of aging beer for long periods of time.
Don’t automatically assume that a stout stored for a year is superior to one it took Parker just 8-10 weeks to age.”
If barrel-aged brews submitted for beer judging are susceptible to being aged too long, the question becomes this: how long should beer be aged?
Parker says that it varies. “At some point, you’ve picked up all the flavor you’re going to get from a barrel,” he says. “And it depends on the spirit, but in most cases we’re getting the flavor from whatever was previously aged in the barrel within two months. Maybe less. We’ve had some barrels we’ve felt we maxed out the flavor in two weeks. We got some Islay scotch barrels in, and within a week we said, ‘Holy shit, this is so smoky, we might need to blend it down!’” Keep in mind that his beers are aged in Colorado, where there’s no humidity. Climate and storage temperature are everything to the barrel-aging process, and can affect the ideal length of time a beer spends in a barrel.
It’s different over at Founders, which ages beer underground in a former gypsum mine. “We age our beer in high-humid and relatively cold environments. That’s how we try to treat our beer, regardless if it’s in a bottle, can, tank, or barrel,” he says. “The extraction process takes longer, which also leaves you more open to oxidized characters. But what works in our favor is that our storage locations are really humid. It has a natural high humidity, which keeps our wood swelled up more, so less air goes in and out of the barrels.” What might take a few months to achieve at Avery takes longer at Founders, though the end result is equally delicious barrel-aged brews.
So the next time you take a sip of a barrel-aged beer, don’t automatically assume that a stout stored for a year is superior to one it took Parker just 8-10 weeks to age, like Avery’s new, bourbon-barrel aged Vanilla Bean Stout (a beer with fantastic reviews so far, an unsurprising fact given his track record). Instead of scrutinizing the length of time it spent in the barrel, it might be best to trust that the barrel herder/lead guitarist took the beer out of the barrel at the right time for that beer in that environment and climate.
“If I pick up a barrel-aged beer from a trustworthy brewery, then I’ll have faith in their product,” Heystek says. “You know how long they aged it? As long as they wanted to.”
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.