Sunday School: Barrel Aging

Share Article

The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.

barrel-aged1It seems these days you can’t go anywhere without seeing barrel-aged beers. You find them popping up more and more on tap lists and in bottle shops. When once it was nearly impossible to get your hands on Founder’s KBS in central Pa., this year at least four bars in the Harrisburg area had kegs of the breakfast stout aged in bourbon barrels. Even small breweries are getting into the game and experimenting with aging beer in different kinds of used barrels.

While it seems that most brewers start with aging full-bodied porters and stouts because their rich chocolate and vanilla notes are easily complemented by the barrel’s smokiness, brewers are even branching out with the styles of beer they choose to barrel age. Last weekend, we were at Old Dominion Brewing Company in Dover, Delaware, where we sampled “Dhiskey Wick,” a version of their Double D IPA aged in Jack Daniels Whiskey barrels. Because of the limited production, you can only sample Old Dominion’s barrel-aged options at their brewery.

Maybe it’s because of the small quantities, or maybe it’s the novelty of them, but although their presence is certainly growing to near ubiquity, there’s something that feels slightly elitist about barrel-aged beers. And I personally am okay with that.


I may have mentioned before that I am a fan of bourbon and scotch, so I really enjoy the barrel-aged trend. The fusion of flavors is often near perfect, and the beers (especially those done in whiskey barrels) tend to have a slight alcohol nose, but a smooth and supple finish. Instead of overpowering the existing flavors in the beer, oak-aging enhances them and adds complementary smoke, spice, and vanilla notes.

I also appreciate that more breweries are moving beyond the hefty bourbon and whiskey barrels and experimenting with beer infused with wine from used barrels.

Victory recently ventured into the wine barrel-aging field with their White Monkey, a version of their Golden Monkey, a Belgian-style tripel, aged in Chardonnay barrels. The chardonnay coaxed the Golden Monkey into a softer, more subtle beer.

Chardonnay, much like beer, is easy to experiment with; the grape has light, neutral flavors, so it lends itself well to being treated in oak. The versatility of the grape also allows vintners to make unoaked, or “naked,” chardonnays. These wines tend to be bright and citrusy with dominating green apple notes, distinct minerality and a hint of honey.

barrelaged2 When aged in oak, Chardonnay develops a full body and tones that are often described as buttery. It develops a creaminess and has flavors of tropical fruits and caramel. Whether oaked or naked, chards are usually finished as dry wines with a relatively high alcohol content.

When wine and beer are barrel-aged, the oak imparts richness and depth. It deepens colors and makes flavors more complex. American oak, in particular, imparts those strong vanilla flavors that are characteristic of both chardonnay and bourbon.

When oak-aging beer, it’s important to understand not just the barrel itself, but also what it had previously been used for. A barrel that previously housed rye will make a beer taste different than one that held scotch. Fifty Fifty Brewing Company’s Eclipse series is a great way to experience how different barrels impart unique characteristics on a beer. They take their Totality Imperial Stout and age it in a variety of different types of barrels for at least 180 days. Tasting the varieties side-by-side is a great way to understand the nuances of the different barrels. The Eclipse series is released in December, so you have a little bit of a wait, but trying even part of the series is well worth it.

Since port barrels impart different characteristics than bourbon barrels, and red and white wine barrels are going to infuse a beer with more subtle flavors than big, bold whiskey barrels, I end with a personal plea to brewers: Please don’t just call something “barrel-aged.” Start defining the type of barrel that is used to age the beer.  I’m tired of having to guess.

Lauren’s Recommendations:

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

You might also like

Radish & Rye | Harrisburg | Sara Bozich

Find gifts and groceries at Radish & Rye this holiday season | GIVEAWAY

Author: Sara Bozich


3 Ways to Submit Your Event to the Weekend Roundup

Learn how to create optimal event submissions for the Weekend Roundup. We publish local event listings in the Weekend Roundup every Thursday morning on the Sara …


sip @ soma with South County Brewing Co. Oct. 17-18

Join us for our next sip @ soma with South County Brewing Co. Oct. 17-18! South County is taking over sip @ soma for an …