Posts Tagged ‘Barrel Ageing’

The Ways Of The Old

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

from theweeklybrew


It seems whenever somone brings up barrel aging, smoked grains, or “real ale” these days they like to pretend they are tasting the flavors of old. They dream of heavy beers with smoky undertones and hints of vanilla and oak, poured from a cask with a slightly oxidized quality. They talk about how it’s the way beer has tasted for hundreds of years, and therefore is how real beer should taste. The reality is that this is our more modern view of what beer would have tasted like.

Technology is the thing you need to understand in order to paint an accurate picture of what a beer would taste like in, say Britain in the 1600’s. The technology available to people drove beer flavors much more then the flavor profiles that drive modern production.

First you start with the malt. Barley and other fermentables at the time didn’t benefit from the breeding we have today. Modern cereals for brewing benefit from an attempt to balance starches, proteins, growability, and other factors. Nowadays we treat our soils and irrigate our fields to help produce a consistent standard. Cereals prior to modern agriculture were inconsistent and could be either high or low protein and no one would really be the wiser. Once cereals were harvested, the ones destined for beer had to be malted. Then the process was inconsistent. Pour grains and water in tubs, soak, drain, germinate, then kiln. Our modern methods regulate temperatures, water, acrospyre length and all sorts of stuff to regiment germination and produce a greater variety of malts. Kilning also added a unique flavor to the beer. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that a new technology allowed grains to be tumbled in a rotating drum. In the 17th century grains were dried on screens or tiles over an open flame or coals creating an intense taste and smell that would probably be more reminiscent to the taste and smell of a campfire then a modern smoked beer. This kilning method also would produce inconsistent roasting of the grain.

Secondly you need to consider hops and yeast. Prior to the 11th century hops weren’t found in beers. By the 1600’s though hops had found their way into beers as a bittering agent. Early hops cultivation suffered similarly to early cereals. There were fewer varieties, inconsistent crops, and poor storage. Even into the 17th century gruit herbs still found their way into most beers. A beer of that time probably would not have any citrus hop flavors like we associate with American beers though. Yeast at the time also suffered from a lack of modernization. Yeast strains were generally regional and were obtained only from a brewer or baker. Breweries who had unique strains often guarded them. If you wanted to make a beer similar to one you tasted in Germany then you needed yeast from that brewery. No White Labs vials from a mail order catalogue.

Barrels in the 1600’s were the primary vessel for storage more so for their durability then their flavors. In the earliest days of brewing brewers would use caustic chemicals like lye or lime, and hot rocks to sanitize their barrels. Imagine the flavors those left in your beers. In Europe though some breweries made an art out of using unsanitized barrels loaded with microbes. These produced the famous sour ales which include Flanders Reds. During this time barrels were often used as long as they could hold beer. Over time and use barrels loose the flavors they are known to impart to beer. Non caustic sanitation didn’t happen until brewers started pitching their barrels by lining them with resin or wax. This made it possible to use barrels without any flavors being imparted, as well as creating a water and air tight environment that was easy to sanitize. In the end all beer was served in what modern drinkers call the “real ale” style. This process required tapping the keg with a tap, and creating a vent hole for air to equalize the pressure. Any beer not consumed soon after the tapping would oxidize and start spoiling due to microbial contact.

So knowing all this can we put together what a beer from the 1600’s tasted like? It would probably look cloudy with bits of yeast, coagulated protein, and vegetable matter. The taste would be similar to a campfire mixed with a malty beverage. There would be some strong herbal notes, perhaps some citrus if yarrow was used. Acetic acid would probably be present and detectable as well as non desirable esthers and other flavors from the yeasts due to improper fermentation temps. The lye used to clean the barrels would leave a salty flavor in the beer rather then vanilla and oak, and there would be a strong oxidation flavor if the cask had been tapped and not finished.

To be fair though lets fast forward a hundred years. Thanks to coke fired kilns malts are lighter and not smokey. Advances in agriculture are leading to more consistency in crop production. Beers from the 1700’s would have lighter colors. Herbal flavors will be less common also. While still suffering quality wise like the beers one hundred years before beer in the 18th century has seen improvements in brewing methods and equipment.

 Into the 1800’s, another hundred years later, and rotating drum roasters produce a consistent quality of malt. Hop and cereal production have seen huge advances in terms of verities grown for beer making. Brewers start pitching their barrels to create a water and air tight vessel that is easy to sanitize and wont impart wood flavors to the beer. Beer from this era begins to resemble modern craft beer in terms of clarity and consistency. Coagulated proteins and sourness are no longer common in beers. Pasteur has greatly added to mans knowledge of micro organisms and how they work. Beer during this time is still poured from the keg, but now by way of a beer engine pumping beer thanks to Joseph Bramah. 

Once you get to the 20th century you have draft beer, glass bottles become common, and the brewing process starts to become mechanized. Beer is lighter, advances in yeast culturing have produced more varieties of yeast. Oxidized beer from a barrel is now a thing of the past. Many of our more modern grains and hops were bred during this time. A beer that is smokey, acidic, or full of coagulated proteins is considered bad beer.

I think it’s fair to say “barrel aged/real ale/smoked” beer never tastes like it did in the old days. If it did, we probably wouldn’t drink it

The Barrel Aged/Dry Hopped Cop Out

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009


liftarn_large_barrelI was just checking the list for the Holiday Ale Festival and it reminded me of something I’ve noticed cropping up at festivals all over the US. When I first noticed it I began calling it the barrel cop out, but I’ve decided dry hop falls under this too.

In Oregons beer market there is an expectation of breweries to constantly bring something new to our festivals. Breweries who bring the “something different” every year recieve more press from bloggers, beer reviewers, and beer magazines then the ones that show up with the same beer every year, regardless of quality. This should theoreticly create a system where brewers are constantly innovating, making one off festival batches, and trying to bring something new to the table. Instead we’re seeing variations on the same beers and hearing them hailed as innovative and new.

Look at some of these beers from the list for this years Holiday Ale Festival.

Dry Hopped Wassail
Bourban Barrel Arrogant Bastard
Papa Noel’s Oak Aged

We’ve somehow collectivly bought into this idea that barrel aging or dry hopping a beer not only makes that beer inffinatly better, but that it also makes a “new” and “unique” beer. I’ve made it no secret that I’m not a fan of the barrel aging craze. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some good barrel aged beers, but I’ve had more average ones. While there’s only 3 listed so far that meet my discription I have no doubt that those special tappings will include alot more.

I guess my gripe is that brewers should treat beer drinkers as more intelligent then a flock of sheep that follow obediantly behind them lapping up their beers. On the flip side beer drinkers need to be more discerning and not act like sheep praising every barrel aged and dry hopped beer that rolls out.

Things Beer Geeks Like

Friday, August 28th, 2009

from theweeklybrew

Barrel Aged Beers


From the time beer was first brewed, till the modern era, beer has been fermented, aged, and served from vessels made of wood, or clay. Thanks to modern methods and lighter weight metals beer in the US for a long time never even knew what wood looked like. Lately thought that’s been changing. It seems any brewer worth their salt is barrel aging. Some brewers have even gone so far as to offer barrel aged versions of their main lines to the more discerning geek. And the discerning geeks do line up in droves.

The ironic part is many of these geeks don’t understand the nature of wood, nor it’s relationship to the beer. They just know barrel aging is supposed to make it better. They will gladly pay for a barrel aged version of their favorite brew, and generally assert it is infinitely better then the original version. It could taste like a Louisville Slugger and they still would praise it. After all, if you age it in wood it should taste like wood right? So if it doesn’t taste like tree something must be wrong.

Barrel aging is no longer the pitch lined containers of yore that were more of a necessity then a luxury. Today’s top brewers must compete for the attention of the ADD masses that consume their brews. To do this they like to use used barrels for their aging… And not just any used barrels either. They want wine barrels, whiskey barrels. rum barrels…. the list goes on. If you’ve used it, they’ll age beer in it.

Brewers also seem to have realized that beer geeks are the ultimate examples of adult ADD. When people question whether or not barrel aging brings anything unique to the table they just announce a special barrel aged version of a popular beer and the geeks follow like cattle from event to event, all hoping they are worthy enough that a brewer will tap a special barrel aged batch for them. For beer geeks a beer soaked with wood is the ultimate wet dream. Hey, it sounds kinky talking about wet dreams and wood in the same sentence.

I once heard someone say when everyone tries to be unique we all end up the same. I think that about sums up barrel aged beers. 🙂

Herbal Infusions

Thursday, June 25th, 2009


The North American Organic Brewers Festival is upon us this beer event laden weekend. One thing I’ve noticed looking at the beer list is the number of beers with different herbs in them. The trend in craft brewing right now seems to be towards barrel aging beers, but I’ve noticed a trend towards herbal beers here in the northwest, and to a much lesser extent around the nation. Could herbal beers be the next big thing?

Personally I love  the aroma, and to a much lesser degree the flavor, that herbs other then hops impart to beer. I’ve used both yarrow and bogmyrtle a couple times. So I find myself wondering why the trend?

I think part of it is the novelty value to the consumer, and an interest for the brewer in stretching their horizons. I think it’s one of the reasons oak aging has exploded. To the average non brewing public the idea of barrel aging, boiling with hot rocks, or adding dandelion flowers is something way out there. There is a big draw in trying unique or unusual beers for the beer snob crowd.

As a brewer I’m interested in the techniques from a non novelty stand point. What can these different ingredients and methods do to change the characteristics of my beer? Are they effective? It’s the same curiosity that caused me to dump peanut butter in a stout. It’s also the same curiosity that caused me to develope my recipe for a gooseberry yarrow saison that I’m brewing this weekend.

So am I full of it about these fads and trends? I’d like to know others opinions. I’d especialy like Soseman’s input since she works in marketing.