From the outside looking in, the use of the stainless steel or aluminium keg has numerous advantages over the old wooden kegs. The metal kegs last much longer, you can move them easier, with not too much worry about dropping them, they are far easier to clean out and re-use, and the beers inside don’t pick up any flavours off the metal.
The old style wooden kegs on the other hand, can be tricky. There are a lot of rules placed on the use of them now, mostly to do with the hygiene aspects of them, as they are porous and breathe can leak and they can, if not used properly, become a little festy. They have been known to explode too, and the beer inside can pick up a lot of flavours from the wood. Brewers used to coat the inside of the barrels with brewers pitch to stop the wood from influencing the beer
Quite a few years ago craft brewers started to go back to the old wooden kegs for special releases or to create beers that are different and exciting. Over time even mainstream brewers have trended toward using wooden kegs, the very interesting (and very expensive) Crown Ambassador for example. And just watch happens over the next few years with the explosion of craft brewing and the use of wooden barrels, but more importantly how that demand for good true independent craft beer will drive our ability to our access barrel aged stouts, porters etc.
These days barrel aging is a way for brewers to add extra complexity and layers of flavour to beer. Everything from new, raw oak barrels to used bourbon and whisky barrels, even retired red wine barrels can be used by brewers looking to produce creative brews. Many different styles of beer make good candidates for barrel aging, but generally malt-forward and high alcohol styles are the most common to see the inside of a barrel.
Used spirit barrels are often the barrel most favoured by brewers. As a beer ages in a barrel it will pick up flavours from the wood, as well as notes from the spirit that the barrel previously held. The result is a cocktail of toasted oak, vanilla, and bourbon flavour. These flavours work incredibly well with the chocolate and coffee flavours of stouts, and there are many examples of this particular blend of beer and wood, not all readily available though. Other spirit barrels are used by the more progressive and daring brewers, I’ve even tried an American wheat beer that was aged in old tequila barrels.
Most barrel aged beers will require a final blending; it takes a very skilled brewer that is able to make each brew consistent, which is why these brews are often small batch, or special releases.
Since barrel-aged beers require more time and care to produce than other craft brews they often carry a premium price. Presently they are harder to find than the proverbial rocking horse droppings, but as their popularity with brewers and drinkers alike continue to grow hopefully we will see more of this style of beers hitting the shelves at your local bottle-o.
Easy to find in FNQ woody beers:
Crown Ambassador – the new release of the Crown shouldn’t be too far from hitting our shelves. In the past I’ve been a little too quick to dismiss this as more of a corporate gift than a beer lover’s purchase. That changed a few months ago when I opened a few of the bottles that I had put aside to see how they would age (the things I do in the name of research). The result has surprised me. These have become quite fine beers, with the oak imparting just enough kick to make it interesting, a touch of vanilla and layers of toffee and caramels have evolved in these. Each year gave a different result, as did the years that the brewer changed. Yes, they are expensive at nearly $100 for a 750ml bottle, but if you have someone who really LOVES their beer, and is able to cellar these, then you won’t go wrong.
Pepperjack Hand Crafted Ale – only available at your local independent bottleshops or restaurants. From the team at Saltram, this ale is one of a handful of beers made by wineries, but to the best of my knowledge it’s the only beer in Oz to be made using some of the same juice that goes into their Pepperjack Shiraz. It’s not just grabbing grapes, stomping them and pouring in the beer, it’s a genuine example of beer making and winemaking working together. It’s got subtle stone fruit style sweetness and touches of toffee to it. Hints of bitterness in the finish make it a very decent beer. Technically not a wood aged beer but the shiraz sees some on wood and you can get a touch of oak from that.
Monteith’s Barrel Aged Porter – I’m a firm believer that a good porter can be enjoyed year round, under the right circumstances. I’ve never seen anyone finish mowing the yard on a 42deg day, with 98% humidity that thinks to themselves, geeze a nice long dark beer would go down a treat at the moment. However few things are more enjoyable than a glass of porter off the tap, and time spent with mates at the pub. The team at NZ’s Monteith’s Brewery have created one of those enjoyable type porters here. American oak barrels that have previously held Pinot Noir have been used to give a beer that has great rich, dark malty flavours, with touches of chocolate, coffee and spice. Great smooth mouthfeel to this too. Fantastic with food, particularly oysters.
Innis and Gunn Original Oaked Ale – Aged for 30days in old bourbon barrels adds vanilla, toffee and touches of orange to a beer that is already malt. There is a light oak on the tongue, and the bourbon also gives the beer warmth on the finish, that is very long and sweet. And it’s that sweetness that had my fellow tasters at odds. I thought it was too sweet to be a serious sessionable beer with a strange artificial sweetness that was too much for me to enjoy, they thought it would appeal to people with a sweet tooth and during the hotter times of the year, perhaps a thirst quencher after mowing the yard with that sweetness in there. Either way sometimes you just want a few mellow beers that show interesting characteristics, this certainly fits the bill there