By Sarah Jaquay
“Roll out the barrel” used to be a clarion call to polka. These days, Ohio brewers are rolling out barrels to age their products and create more complex flavors and aromas.
Barrel-aged beers have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and the Buckeye state boasts a number of “early adopters” of this throwback to old-fashioned methods. Beers were aged in wooden casks for centuries before the advent of steel fermentation tanks. Today, dozens of local breweries are turning out first-rate barrel-aged selections. Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery in Athens and Elevator Brewery and Draught Haus in Columbus are representative of those with cult followings for their barrel-aged beers. Both are also expanding their programs.
“Bourbon feeds the entire industry,” remarks Brad Clark, head brewer at Jackie O’s. By law, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; bourbon makers (directly and via barrel brokers) then sell their used barrels to brewers and producers of Scotch, rum and brandy. Brewers use them, plus wine barrels, to enhance existing styles and to start sour beer programs (more on the rising tide of tart beers in July/August’s Brews News). Whether it’s Jackie O’s popular bourbon barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout, Dark Apparition, or Elevator’s seasonal rum barrel-aged Winter Warmer Spiced (brown) Ale, this trend seems here to stay – despite higher retail prices.
“We like older barrels that have aged at least seven years,” notes Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s. That’s because older barrels impart more diverse and subtle flavors. Oestrike believes inventive brewers have driven the demand for more barrel-aged styles. “Brewers and consumers are always interested in something new and different,” he says. And while barrel aging has been traditionally limited to porters and stouts or making Scotch ales, the base continues to grow. Jackie O’s is expanding its production facility this summer which will result in expanded barrel-aged choices. The brewery will be using Chardonnay and other wine barrels to make sour beers such as Lambics. They’ve also aged beer in Sherry, Cabernet, Muscat, Cognac and tequila barrels. Oestrike and Clark don’t like to rush their barrel program, which requires time and wild yeasts to achieve the flavor profiles they want.
Dick Stevens, owner of Elevator Brewing, agrees that brewers’ creativity and competitiveness has led to an explosion of offerings. Elevator’s Horny Goat Bourbon Barrel-Aged Porter is a seasonal favorite and they make others in limited production. Jay Taylor, an Elevator salesman, explains their company’s approach to barrel aging is to accentuate the beer – not to overwhelm it. (Barrel buffs have likely sampled styles with too heavy or too faint spirit flavors.)
Both Oestrike and Stevens acknowledge how labor intensive barrel-aging is and how prices have skyrocketed due to container scarcity. Barrels are now sold globally and demand continues to rise. Some brewers re-use their barrels, but Elevator doesn’t. “That [re-use] didn’t work for us,” notes Stevens. “We found the first [use] to be the best and we want our beer to be consistently excellent. Okay beer won’t cut it.”
So Buckeye State brewers will be filling barrels when they can get them, but the dancing may just be the flavors on your tongue.