Bourbon Barrel Beer: What’s the Hype?

Although aging beer in barrels is nothing new, the use of bourbon barrels is a fairly recent idea. And it doesn’t just apply to beer: wine, gin, cognac, and even tequila are getting the whiskey barrel treatment. But what makes this process so popular? Well, we’re a brewery, so we’ll give you our two cents on bourbon barrel beer, and what makes it so delightful. 

History of Bourbon Barrel Beer 

As with many innovations related to beer, barrel aging has its roots in Belgium. Lambic style beers have been brewed in the Senne valley and other parts of southwestern Belgium since the 13th century. Lambics are aged for 1-3 years in barrels as old as 150 years. The barrels are procured from winemakers in France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Oak is preferred, but chestnut is also used.

Bourbon is an American invention, so it is no surprise that aging in these types of barrels originated in the United States in the 1990s. Bourbon has a few requirements in order to be labeled as such: 

    1. It must be made with at least 51% corn
    2. It must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years
    3. Mash is distilled at 160 proof (80 percent alcohol) and aged in barrels until it has reached less than or equal to 125 proof (62.5% alcohol). It is then further diluted to 80 proof (40% ABV).

    While other types of whiskey can be put in barrels previously used to age different spirits, bourbon must be aged in new barrels. This means there is a surplus of perfectly good bourbon barrels out there that cannot be used again by distillers. Greg Hall, a brewer from Chicago, noticed the opportunity and snagged a couple of Jim Beam barrels to produce Goose Island’s 1992 Bourbon County Stout–widely credited as the first bourbon barrel aged beer in the country. 

    What Does Bourbon Barrel Aging Do to Beer?

    Bourbon barrel beer has a distinctive flavor that arises for a couple different reasons:

    1. The barrels themselves impart the complex flavors of American oak, which are at once sweet and earthy, with a hint of spice. Elements of vanilla, caramel, coconut, and dill all seep into the beer, along with a touch of smoke from the charring inside the barrel.
    2. Barrel aging may be used to intentionally provoke Brettanomyces fermentation. This occurs when wild strains of Brettanomyces yeast react with the small amounts of oxygen seeping in through the wood. The reaction produces a unique flavor prized in lambics and sour beers

    Best Bourbon Barrel Beer Styles

    Various styles of beer lend themselves exceptionally well to bourbon barrel aging, with some standing out due to their compatibility with the rich flavors imparted by the barrels:

     

      • Imperial Stout: Renowned for its robust character, an imperial stout possesses a boldness that harmonizes seamlessly with the complexities of bourbon barrel aging. The beer absorbs the oak and bourbon notes, enriching its dark chocolate, coffee, and roasted malt flavors.

    Craft imperial stout by Diebolt Brewery with polar bear on yellow can

     

    Diebolt’s Vladislav Imperial Stout is aged for 7 months in a combo of barley and bourbon barrels for an award-winning flavor profile.

     

      • Barleywine: With its high alcohol content and intense maltiness, barleywine is an ideal candidate for barrel aging. The interaction between the sweet, caramel-like malt profile and the bourbon-infused oak creates a luxurious drinking experience.

      • Strong Ale: Similar to barleywine, strong ales benefit from the marriage of their rich, malty base with the nuanced flavors from bourbon barrels. The result is a beer that boasts layers of complexity and a smooth, warming finish.

      • Porter: Though less common than stouts for barrel aging, porters can shine when aged in bourbon barrels. The marriage of the dark malts with the vanilla and oak from the barrels creates a velvety, nuanced beer with a delightful interplay of flavors. Herby notes from the oak can also tone down the heaviness of a porter.

    “Bourbon Barrel Beer” is Fun to Say…

    …and even more fun to drink. Stop by our brewery to taste our barrel-aged Vladislav Imperial Stout–notes of dark fruit, bourbon, espresso, and chocolate blend lusciously for a smooth, velvety finish. We won third place in the 2023 World Beer Cup out of 202 competitors for this one. So, yeah, it’s pretty good. 

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