Over A Barrel at Westbrook Brewing
Craft brewing, like any artisanal pursuit, sees techniques come in and out of popularity. What’s hot today may not be hot tomorrow, but methods, styles, and ingredients worth their salt tend to stick around even after beer geeks move on to chase the next white whale.
Barrel-aging falls into this category. A necessity for old-time brewing, using barrels to age beer today is a deliberate, expensive proposition, yielding an expensive, often sought-after product.
Charleston’s modern barrel-aging history starts at COAST Brewing, with the 96-bottle release of Jack Daniels Barrel-Aged Blackbeerd Imperial Stout in 2009. However, in terms of size and variety, the current center of barrel-aging in South Carolina is Westbrook Brewing in Mount Pleasant.
“I think we have about 85 barrels with beer in them right now,” said Co-Founder/President Edward Westbrook on a cloudy September day. His barrels reside in a dedicated room, filled with the intoxicatingly sweet smell of old wood that once housed spirits or wine.
The effect of barrel-aging comes in two parts. Aging alone yields “a reduction in hop flavors and bitterness. You get a little oxidation, which can soften the malt character of the beer and give you flavors of sherry, port … [and] a little bit of cardboard sometimes … When you age beer in a wooden barrel, the wood is porous … so it allows that oxidation to take place slowly.”
But barrel-aging is more than fancified oxidation. “If you have a new oak barrel that’s never been used … you’ll get a lot of oak flavor — vanilla, tannin, some coconut-like or spice notes depending on the toast level of the oak. If you have a used [bourbon] barrel … you’ll get obviously a lot of the bourbon flavor because there’s a lot of whiskey still soaked into the wood, and you also get some wood flavor.”
It doesn’t stop with bourbon. Brewers are increasingly looking at wine barrels to add to their collection. “For example … [take] a Chardonnay barrel. If I was going to age a beer in there I’d do a Belgian Golden Ale or maybe a Saison. Very dry, higher in alcohol … light-tasting beers go well with the white wine character.”
Wild Ales bring a different dimension to barrel-aging, fermented using natural organisms called “wild yeasts” or “bugs,” not the mega-variety of cultivated brewer’s yeasts. “For example … Lambics are beers naturally fermented without the addition of brewer’s yeast … often fermented and aged completely in oak barrels. An oak barrel is a perfect environment for the wild yeast to do their magic. They work very slowly, but produce unique flavors that you cannot get from brewing yeast.”
“Very slowly” indeed. The Westbrook barrel room has housed wine barrels filled with Flanders Red Ale, “a sour red beer traditionally from the Flanders region of Belgium,” for eighteen months, with six to twelve months still to go. Short term, you can look forward to an Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Tripel, and “red wine barrel, 100% Brettanomyces-fermented Lichtenhainer Weisse.” Say that three times fast.