I am fresh off of another fantastic Winter Beer Festival in Grand Rapids this weekend. Winter Fest takes a certain mentality, one that I think captures the spirit of our great state. Weathering Mother Nature with 6000 of your closest beer loving friends turns out to be an amazing experience. Before I forget, a well deserved tip of the hat to the Michigan Brewers Guild for pulling off a smooth and safe event. A daunting task to say the least.
After perusing the wave of social media that follows events like this, I found a topic that should be explored further: barrel aged beers. Droves of beer lovers line up for special releases of bourbon/whisky barrel beers. There seems to be some expectations as to what these beers should be. I have seen some sentiment on Facebook expressing the idea that barrel aged beers are overrated. Also, that just because something has been put into a barrel, it does not make the beer automatically special. Thus the inferno of internet debate was sparked once again. What are these beers supposed to be? What makes a great barrel aged beer? In light of that, I have decided to input my thought on the topic in hopes of stirring a conversation about a wildly popular trend in brewing.
Range of Style
First of all, lets discuss the concept of range of style. I myself am a style brewer. There are a well defined beer styles that exist, and are described by the Brewers Association (BA) and the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). These styles have been established, and in some cases have evolved, over time. Personally, I prefer to work within this framework and try and experiment within it's bounds. As brewers continue to create and push the limits of brewing, new styles become legitimized. Among these in recent years are Double or Imperial IPA, Triple IPA, Belgian IPA, Session IPA, (think consumers like IPA?), Wheat Wine, Rye beers, and American Strong Ale among others.
Range of style is the idea that no one beer is completely representative of the style (don't nitpick me with Anchor Steam). Using IPA as an example, there are some versions of this style that exhibit a range of malt flavors (toasty, carmel, nutty) that are balanced by a very aggressive bitterness and elevated hop flavor. While other IPA's feature a diminished malt profile with intense levels of hop flavor to create balance. These beers are still bitter, but they do not have to be aggressively bitter to overcome the sweetness of specialty malts.
Issues arrive when people define a style narrowly. For instance, I have had people say that a great IPA isn't a great IPA because it isn't "Two Hearted, 60 Minute, Blind Pig, etc." This logic is simply wrong. The aforementioned beers are all tremendous example of the style. Because individuals may prefer one over the other, it doesn't mean that the rest are not a fine example of the style. It is a matter of taste. The same can be said for barrel aged beers.
Barrel as Ingredient
When crafting a beer that is destined for the barrel, considerations must be made. The barrel should be viewed just as vital to any recipe as any specific malt, hop, or yeast strain that is utilized to ferment the beer. Often times, brewers will begin a barrel aged project with a base beer like a porter or stout, and a high alcohol version of these styles at that. These beers feature robust notes of coffee, chocolate, and extreme roast notes in various intensity levels. These flavors tend to pair well with the crème brulee, vanilla bean, coconut, and spirit contributions of an the American oak barrel. It seems that the expectation for these beers are, or has become, to feature bourbon and oak notes with the beer becoming a secondary or even tertiary contributor to the final product.
For some, myself included, unbalanced barrel forward beers may be fine for a few sips, but rarely would I have interest in a pint of them. I find them taxing to my palate, and in some cases, like a pint dosed with a shot, or biting into a barrel stave. Beers like this play well at a festival, as we receive three ounce pours. At that rate issues like imbalance and cloying notes can be offset by the relatively small sample size. I feel that beers like this do not fall under the “Range of Style” mantle. They are inherently uneven and lack symmetry.
I tend to enjoy beers that use the barrel contribution in a supporting role for the base beer. However, I have had many wonderful examples that are more bourbon forward than my taste dictates, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it is a wonderful beer. Two great examples of that for me are Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Bourbon County Stout from Goose Island. They are on the aggressive side of barrel character but it does not impair the beers consumability. Again, range of style. It is my opinion that in time consumers will begin to see a wider range of barrel beers, those that aggressively feature wood, and those that use it with a lighter hand. Ultimately, barrel aged beers ought to find a balance where the beer and barrel comingle to create a sum greater than it's parts.
Drink good beer with good people!