This week’s Canada's Craft Beer post comes from our Atlantic Canada craft beer guy, Todd Beal. This week Todd discusses the resurgence of barrel-aged beers, sampling selections from Garrison Brewing and Big Spruce Brewing.
Brewers barrel-age beer for a period of time to add the character of the wood of the barrel as well as, in most cases, flavours of what previously inhabited the vessel. The goal is to get flavours that wood can impart including vanilla, coconut, caramel, fruit, spices or toasted notes and flavour from the spirits or wine aged in the barrel before.
The most popular barrels previously held bourbon, scotch whiskey, rum and sherry. As well, some brewers are also looking for microorganisms living in the wood to add another layer of depth to the brew. Whiskey barrels are used often for aging beer as they're only used once and discarded. Plus, the alcohol from them will kill off natural bacteria, like Lactobacilus, that will sour the beer.
Not every beer is suited for barrel-aging; those that are include beers of higher alcohol content and stronger flavours that can hold up to the new flavours being introduced. Think stouts, porters and strong Belgians versus IPAs and wheat beers.
Wooden barrels are nothing new to beer. Wood was the most common material to store beer up until the 20th century when stainless steel become the primary material due to its cost and the ability to clean and sanitize it. The resurgence of the wooden barrel is tied to the rise of craft brewing and brewers experimenting and searching for new flavour components.
The usual process is that beer will go through an initial fermentation prior to being aged in the barrel. At this point beer will be added to barrels and left from days to months to years. The beer can go through another fermentation in the barrel if the brewer chooses. The wood used is mostly oak, and in particular wood from the center of the tree, which has more soluble, liquid-absorbing lignins (binders for cells and vessels giving structure) that are important in the process. Every time a barrel is filled with beer, the lignins release some liquid stored and absorb some of the beer. This means every time the barrel gets used the end result will be slightly different.
Due to the nature of barrel aging, the beers are limited release and as such may be hard to find.
Garrison Brewing — Grand Baltic Porter Rum Barrel Aged
Garrison has been making beer for 19 years in Halifax and chose Ironworks rum barrels from Lunenburg to age a portion of this perennial favourite. The porter is aged in the barrels for one year before being bottled and is a hefty 11% ABV.
The extra strong ale pours very dark brown with a tan head that lingers. Aroma is malty, roasty, bread, caramel, molasses, rum and alcohol. When sipped it is a strong, smooth, sweet beer with dark fruit, molasses and rum flavour — definitely a beer to be sipped and savoured.
ABV 11% | Available NS
Big Spruce Brewing — RA RA Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Big Spruce Brewing has been making organic beer on their central Cape Breton farm since 2013. This small farm brewery is undergoing a major expansion to meet demand for their beers. RA RA Rasputin, which marked Big Spruce's first bottled product, was brewed with loads of black and dark malts, and Just Us! organic coffee. It then spent two months in 14-year old Single Malt Glenora Distillery barrels.
The RIS pours black with a creamy dark brown head that dissipates quickly. The nose reveals strong roasted malts, dark fruit, whiskey, caramel and some oaky notes. The flavour has chocolate, coffee, liquorice, dark fruit, whiskey and barrel notes. This beer recently won the 2016 Atlantic Canadian Beer Awards Beer of the Year.
10.5% ABV & 41 IBUs | Available NS
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Todd Beal follows the craft beer scene closely in the Canadian Maritimes and reports on it weekly on his blog, Maritime Beer Report. He’s frequently asked to comment on television, newspapers and magazines as a craft beer expert. He can be heard Friday afternoons on News 95.7 commenting on beer. Visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @MaritimeBeerRpt.