Roll Out the Barrel: How barrel aging is reshaping the craft beverage world

If you’ve been in a brewpub or craft beer bar in the past few years, chances are you’ve seen a least a few barrel-aged beers on the menu.

Barrel aging is a growing niche in the beer world, spurred forth in part by Michigan’s own Founders Brewing Company. Two years ago, Founders launched the “Barrel-Aged Series,” an annual limited run of five beers, all aged in oak barrels. The series includes both KBS and CBS, two highly celebrated bourbon barrel-aged stouts that are frequently listed among the highest-rated beers in the world. It’s also featured a rum-barrel-aged IPA, a cherry ale aged in bourbon-maple syrup barrels, and other experimental brews.

Traverse City brewers and distillers are getting in on the action, too. Traverse City Whiskey Co. frequently supplies barrels to brewers both near (Brewery Terra Firma) and not-so-near (Bell’s Brewery, based in Kalamazoo). Grand Traverse Distillery, meanwhile, sells barrels to a long list of different northern Michigan breweries, including Right Brain, The Filling Station, The Workshop Brewing Company, Petoskey Brewing, Stormcloud Brewing Co., and Beards Brewery.

TC Whiskey Co. first got involved with barrel aging in 2012, after a coincidental meeting with Bell’s owner Larry Bell at a whiskey tasting. “We were there doing some marketing, he was there exploring the barrel-aged beer sector,” said TC Whiskey Co. owner Chris Fredrickson. “And he said, ‘We’re really interested in your bourbon barrels, and we’ve got a fun project that we’re taking off.’”

Since then, TC Whiskey Co. has maintained a handshake relationship with Bell’s. Fredrickson says he contacts Bell’s whenever TC Whiskey Co. empties a new batch of barrels. If Bell’s wants the barrels, the brewery pays a pre-set per-barrel price and TC Whiskey ships them out. TC Whiskey Co. also has relationships with several other Michigan breweries, including Short’s in Bellaire and Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven.

The appeal of barrel aging, Fredrickson says, is in the way it effectively cross-pollinates the arts of distilling and brewing. Most often, breweries will use barrels to bring characteristics of bourbon, whiskey, rye or other spirits to their beers. Sometimes distilleries will buy barrels back from breweries to get some of the flavoring of a barrel-aged beer into their spirits. In either case, the brewers or distillers are relying on the natural structure of the wood in the barrel to enhance or “finish” their concoctions.

“The way that the aging process works is that, with time, the spirit or the beer will expand into the pores of the wood,” Fredrickson said. “With temperature fluctuations — and we have great temperature fluctuations in Michigan; it’s one of the best parts about aging in this climate — you get stronger interaction with and stronger exposure to the wood. What’s nested in the wood is either the beer or the spirit. So, if you age a whiskey in a beer barrel for six months, the whiskey will begin to take on some of the characteristics of that beer.”

The first time Right Brain Brewery Founder and CEO Russell Springsteen experimented with the barrel aging process, luck lent a hand. About a decade ago, Right Brain ended up in possession of a few barrels from Woodford Reserve, a famed distillery in Kentucky known for its bourbon whiskey. Springsteen says that Right Brain “got the barrels through the back door,” and wasn’t technically supposed to have them. Still, he decided to use the barrels to age a small quantity of Right Brain’s CEO Stout. He was blown away by the results. When Right Brain reached out to Woodford Reserve about getting more barrels, though, the distillery wised up to a new market opportunity growing on the horizon.

“The whiskey companies at that time had no idea that their barrels had a second use,” Springsteen said. “They were giving them away for nothing. Those days are gone. [The Woodford Reserve barrels] are, like, $200 a barrel now.”

Fortunately, Springsteen found other sources for barrels by working with local distillers. Most breweries haven’t had the same fortune. In many parts of the country, breweries are competing fiercely for high-quality barrels. Last year, published an article about the growing demand, tight supply, and rising costs of used barrels. Broadly, the craft beer industry has reached the point where getting barrels is virtually a competitive sport.

Making matters more challenging is the fact that not all barrels are created equal. For best results, brewers want “wet” barrels, or barrels that were emptied very recently. After the distiller empties a barrel that has been used to age a spirit, the clock starts ticking. The more time that passes, the more the flavor profile of the barrel diminishes. “Dry” barrels, therefore, are not as desirable for aging beer.

According to Fredrickson, TC Whiskey Co. has even strategized its bottling process to suit the wants and needs of breweries. The distillery aims to do large batches of each type of spirit and then empty all the barrels for that batch within the span of a few weeks. The result is that TC Whiskey Co. can offer bigger bulk shipments of barrels to breweries while also ensuring that those barrels are wet and ideal for aging beer.

Even then, though, Springsteen says that barrel aging beer can be like shooting in the dark.

“It’s unpredictable,” Springsteen said. “When you get the barrel, you have a general idea of what flavor is going to come out of there, but it’s different from barrel to barrel. They’re all their own animal. Some are stronger. Some are more oaky.”

Springsteen says one of the big challenges of barrel-aging beer is making sure the beer doesn’t end up too “hot,” or too heavy on the flavors of the whiskey or spirit. To avoid this problem, Right Brain will often use barrels twice, for two different batches of the same type of beer. The first use is more likely to result in a beer that is intensely liquor-flavored. The second typically yields a beer with much milder flavors, since the barrel has already been sapped of much of its flavor profile. Right Brain takes both batches and blends them together, finding a happy medium between the intense character of the first batch and the subtlety of the second.

Right Brain largely uses barrel aging as a way to get more creative and experimental with its brews. Springsteen says that, when barrel aging really started taking off seven years ago, the first impulse of most brewers was to age stouts. Eager not to do what everyone else was doing, Springsteen took Right Brain in different directions. The brewery’s two signature barrel-aged beers today are Looping Owl, an amber ale aged in whiskey barrels; and Gin Joy Ale, a vanilla cream ale laid down in gin barrels. Springsteen has also experimented with products like 2 Brains, a Saison aged in Cabernet Franc wine barrels from 2 Lads; or Batch 3000, an imperial cream ale aged in whiskey barrels that previously held maple syrup.

This tradition of experimentation has always been at the heart of barrel aging, to the point where it’s mostly been the territory of larger breweries like Bell’s and Founders. Those companies have more bandwidth, more resources, and more insulation from risk than smaller operations, which means they can take more chances with their products.

Fredrickson thinks that barrel-aged beers are becoming less of an experimental oddity and more of a staple beer. As that shift happens, more microbreweries are getting into the game. “A company like Bell’s has the resources to play around and toy with conventions,” Fredrickson said. “With some of the smaller companies, they can’t necessarily take the same risks with what they brew. But recently, we’ve noticed a definite surge [in interest for our barrels] from the smaller craft breweries.”