If you’ve ever had a barrel-aged beer, then you don’t need to be told why they’re notable. And chances are you’ve had a barrel-aged something, since an estimated 85% of U.S. breweries had some kind of barrel program as of 2015.
You probably remember it, too, whether you liked it or not. Wood-aged beers are distinctive, if nothing else. The chemistry between the wood and the beer adds a whole exotic dimension to that simple formula, water+malt+hops+yeast.
Humans have been transporting liquid in wooden barrels since at least the 5th century b.c., but we’re really only beginning to understand what’s going on in those barrels.
In fact, for much of the 20th century, the assumption among brewers was that wood was “old-fashioned” and that it was better to move into steel vessels when possible.
That began to change in the 1990s when U.S. brewers experimented with using old bourbon barrels to infuse bourbon flavors into their beers.
It was a nice set-up, since distilleries by law could only use their barrels once (it had to do with protecting the cooperage industry, actually), and since the resulting beers were big on alcohol sweetness and smooth, spicy aromas and flavors.
Even then, we didn’t realize how important the barrel was. It just seemed like an old-school or traditional way to do things.
That was then, this is now. Now we know that it not only matters what was stored in the barrel, but what kind of wood it’s made from, and whether it’s a new barrel or an old barrel, and so on.
Now we know enough to know that there’s still more we don’t know, but we’re having a blast figuring it all out.
Here’s a quick couple things to inform your wood-aged adventure before you go to this year’s winter ale fest.
 If you really want to geek-out on this topic, by the way, I learned a lot from Cantwell and Bouckaert’s Wood & Beer (Brewers Publications, 2016) and Jeff Alworth’s Beer Bible (Workman, 2015).
Wood-Aged vs. Barrel-Aged
First things first. When you see “barrel-aged” on a label, you’ll generally also be able to find some reference to a wine or spirit, too, especially bourbon and pinot noir—and, increasingly, cognac and rum.
Aging a beer in an old bourbon or rum barrel will impart flavors redolent of those spirits. Bourbon is the most popular, as it goes well with stouts and porters and even some strong ales. Brewers are playing around with pinot noir barrels, which give dark fruit notes to the beer, while rum barrels can produce that mellow, vanilla and coconut quality you associate with rum.
Technically, any barrel-aged beer is wood-aged, since the barrel is made of, well, wood. However, if the beer is described as “wood-aged” then it probably means fresh wood was used in some part of the brewing process. That could mean adding wood chips to the fermenter, or it could mean fermenting or aging the beer in a new barrel, often made of something exotic-sounding like Nordic oak or Spanish cedar.
Some people will sneer at wood chips. Tell them to chill out. There’s room enough for all the beers, and we’re interested in flavor, after all, right? Barrel-aging definitely plays to the time element we associate with craft, and it can produce more depth, but wood-aging plays to the experimentation typical of American breweries and can have surprising results.
Might as well give them a shot.
Wild Ales, Sours, & Lambics: The Old School Wood Beers
Wild ales, sours, and lambics may not be specifically associated with winter, but with the exception maybe of lambics, they are definitely hot right now. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some at the fest.
Traditional wild ales and lambics are generally wood-aged in some way, often with at least some exposure to the open air to gather wild yeasts (thus “wild” ale).
There’s a whole lore about lambics, in particular, especially concerning whether you can make them anywhere outside a certain region in Belgium, but all you need to know is that lambic brewers used wood long after other brewers switched to steel, so they’re legit.
Sour beers, when brewed and blended using traditional methods, go through a phase of aging in a huge wooden vat called a foeder.
As a quick geek-out sidebar, you’ll hear that word pronounced “feeder” and “fooder” and sometimes something like “fyerder.” I think most people know it shouldn’t sound English, at least. “Fooder” is the most common pronunciation in my experience, but I went to a Dutch college, so I think it’s probably best to pronounce the “oo” part in the front of your mouth rather than the middle-back, so it sort of rhymes with “fürher” (chill out, it’s just a word). In French, the word is foudre, “foo-druh.”
Foeders increase the beer-to-wood ratio, which slows down the aging process and allows for all sorts of surprising flavors to develop. Most beers done this way, especially geuzes, are blended to create the right flavor profile. (“Geuze” is also pronounced in the front of your mouth, like “goo-zuh.”)
You Don’t Know Sours
By the way, if you think you don’t like sours, you probably haven’t had a good one. A well-blended sour will have some bite but won’t kill your tastebuds. You should be able to identify more flavors than just tart or sour.
If you don’t think you like sours, or if you’ve not had much barrel-aged beer, well, what better place than a beer fest to experiment a little? For me, it’s all part of the adventure.
Naperville Winter Ale Fest is a celebration of American Craft Beer in the heart of Chicago. The 2017 fest will take place on Saturday, February 25, 2017. Situated on the frozen tundra of Naperville’s Frontier Park – the fest will feature over 120 unique beers from craft breweries around the country. Pull out your long-johns and parkas, it’s time to experience winter’s best craft beers. The fest will also feature live music and food from some of Chicagoland’s favorite food trucks.
Naperville Ale Fest – Winter Edition
Saturday, February 25, 2017
12:00 to 4:00 pm
Frontier Park – Naperville, IL