Wine And Spirit Barrels Are Invading San Diego Breweries
The Barrels Are Coming!
Why are we seeing the proliferation of wine and spirit barrels at our favorite breweries? And why is beer being stored in those barrels in the first place?
Barrel-aging beer is nothing new. Barrel-aged beers have always been a part of San Diego County’s craft beer culture, but over the past few years they’ve been increasing. It seems like every brewery I visit has barrels. And when I revisit my favorite breweries, they have more barrels than the last time I visited. Toolbox Brewing Company, a brewery in north San Diego County, specializes in barrel-aged wild and sour beers.
So, what’s driving the increase in barrel-aged beers?
Consumer Palates Are Changing
Consumer palates for craft beers are becoming more educated and sophisticated, and with sophistication has come a thirst for more complex and interesting brews. How does a brewer produce complex and interesting beers to quench that thirst? Age them in wood barrels, of course.
According to Garrett Oliver in his book, The Oxford Companion to Beer, modern American brewers age their beers in wood “so that the wood will influence the aroma and flavor of the beer.” Barrel-aging adds to the overall complexity of a beer, enhancing its aroma, softening its flavor, and making it more interesting. Moreover, beer and food pairing expert “Dr.” Bill Sysak once said barrel-aging beer helps to raise its food-pairing quality.
As a brewery grows its production of barrel-aged beers to meet new demand, so grows its collection of new and previously used wine and spirit barrels. Now days, breweries seem to be stacking them anywhere they can find space, filling them with all kinds of beers. San Diego brewers are embracing barrel-aged beers like crazy, and barrel-aging beer requires wood barrels.
Barrels proliferating at breweries were previously used as containers for aging either wine or spirits. Or, if the barrels came from another brewery, they were aging base beers, sours, or wilds. Although most of the barrels used by San Diego brewers are made of oak, there are barrels made of other woods. It’s the type of wood and what was stored in the barrel before it came to the brewery that determines how the brewer will use it.
Barrel characteristics that are infused into beer are generally woody and spiritous, or woody and vinous. Wine barrels, which are woody and vinous, are perfect for aging sour and wild beers, though some brewers use wine barrels for clear beers, too. Not only do wine barrels allow Brettanomyces and Lactobacillius (used in making sour and wild beers) to survive during aging, wine barrels also impart wood and wine aroma and flavor notes to the beer.
Want to infuse a sour or wild beer with delicate wood and vinous aromas and flavors? Age the brew in a barrel that previously held Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The staves of those barrels will be soaked with vinous characteristics.
Want to impart wood and spirit aromas and flavors to a Porter or Stout? Age it in a barrel that once contained a spirit, such as whiskey, tequila, rum, or brandy. Beers aged in spirit barrels take on flavors of the spirit as well as the woody notes of the staves. That’s why oak bourbon barrels are perfect for aging Imperial Stouts, and why wheat beers aged in tequila barrels get spicy, with other exotic characteristics.
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