Winter is upon us again and, even though everyone knows hot buttered rum and eggnog are the drinks of the season, craft beer lovers will be looking for something with a little more depth as a cold evening curl-up companion. If you’re looking for something with a warming kick like your favorite liquors, barrel-aged beers combine the multifaceted flavors of aged whiskey, brandy and port with the hoppy richness of hearty beer. This new trend has taken the country by storm — Oregon is home to some of the most innovative new barrel-aged craft beers, perfect for those bitter nights when all you crave is a fireside and a warming brew.
The depth of flavor achieved by barrel-aging beer may seem completely new and groundbreaking, but the practice is actually centuries old. In the past, beer was stored and dispensed from wood barrels. In addition to convenient storage, casking the alcohol enabled brewers to transport actively fermenting beer. This meant every beer was technically “barrel-aged” simply because barrels served as the most common method of storing it. The contents of our modern bottles and cans would taste very different from the liquid gold in the tankards of our buzzed ancestors.
Although the practice of storing beer inside porous wood barrels was a necessity back then, it did lead to some incredible innovations — and some horrible stomachaches when the fermentation process went awry. One example is sour beer, actually the result of the brew being infected with bacteria during its fermentation process. This produced the distinctive tart punch characteristic of sour beers.
Before long, brewers began using old whiskey, wine and brandy barrels instead of just old beer barrels. The result opened up a new complexity of flavor, packing more flavonoids into every sip. The beers produced by aging in these types of seasoned barrels are strong, overcoming the senses with a unique cacophony of novel tastes and scents. Recently, the secret of barrel-aged beer has been rediscovered and, centuries later, it’s inspiring a new generation of beer brewers.
Deschutes Brewery has excelled in making beer that defies what beer is meant to taste like. Known as the “godfather of barrel-aged,” Deschutes’ massive production plant in Bend — and small pub downtown — boasts 2,000 casks of barrel-aged beer, proudly displayed, stacked floor-to-ceiling. Each cask is part of the brewery’s Reserve Series beers.
One of Deschutes’ best offerings was recently decreed the World’s Best Porter/Stout. This brew is so highly regarded that a debate has sprung up over whether it should be drunk now or aged like a wine, unlocking its full potential. Whatever the perspective, all agree The Abyss reaches new realms of flavor rarely seen in craft beer. The Abyss is a heavy imperial stout cradled in a mixture of bourbon and red wine barrels along with new Oregon oak casks. A classic formula for many modern barrel-aged beers, The Abyss nonetheless is something completely new, with its unique and complex notes of burnt caramel and smoldering firewood.
If you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift, a beautiful wax dipped 22-ounce bottle of Deschutes’ The Abyss will certainly be cherished and enjoyed by its recipient. The stout’s flavors of vanilla, cherry, licorice and sticky blackstrap molasses are supported by a drop of rich bourbon and warming oak. Every sip is filled with a deep array of flavors, which play at the senses. The Abyss is the perfect beverage for a snowy winter in Oregon, and guaranteed to keep Jack Frost at bay.
If you’re still looking for that perfect barrel-aged brew for the winter season, you’ll find another couple of contenders for the perfect fireside pint. Ninkasi Brewing’s Cask Strength Ground Control recently won gold at the 2018 Oregon Beer Awards in the barrel-aged beer category. Another imperial stout, aged in Woodford Reserve double-oaked bourbon barrels for a whole year, Ground Control is seductively smooth and packed with spicy tantalizing notes — it mixes local Oregon hazelnuts with the exotic aromas of star anise and cocoa nibs. Even more exciting, it’s fermented with an ale yeast that survived a trip to space and back — making Ground Control the perfect present for the person you love to the moon and back.
Stout lovers may be spoiled for choice when it comes to barrel-aged beers but options for those who prefer lighter beers and ales exist, too. Gigantic Brewing has created a sensation with Pipewrench, its new barrel-aged offering. The brewery’s unique use of gin barrels to age an IPA is the first of its kind — Pipewrench is delicately ripened in Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels.
Unlike a classic stout, a barrel-aged brew based on an IPA may not seem like the perfect cup of cheer during winter. But Pipewrench’s herbaceous blend of citrus, juniper, spice and oak make this tasty light beer perfect for feeling the Oregon spirit of the season and refreshing enough to drink after coming in from a brisk walk in the snow.
Another great bottle for those long winter nights is Bend Brewing Company’s Lovely Cherry Baltic Porter, a gold medalist at the esteemed Great American Beer Festival in Denver. And locals in-the-know rave about 10 Barrel Brewing Company’s The Falconator while Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters serves up their satisfying Whiskey Barrel Big Bad Sisters Coffee Stout, perfect as an after-dinner digestif.
All of these Oregon beers prove that barrel-aging is one fad that isn’t going away just yet. The incredible tastes brewers can achieve with barrel-aging are propelling craft brewing into new realms of experimentation and discovery. That means more tasty beer for all. The craft beer revolution shows no signs of slowing down, and with the help of new cask aging techniques, we are sure to enjoy new favors from amazing innovative brews in 2019 and a long time to come. •