You purchase a bottle of English barleywine that has just been released and weighs in at a hefty 13 percent ABV. It’s a cellar no-brainer, right? A beer this young is bound to have a scorching-hot booziness and will certainly need some time to mellow out.
Well, not so fast. This bruisin’ beauty just happens to have been aged in bourbon barrels, and a little research reveals that it spent nine long months slumbering in that oak. Still want to put it down in the cellar?
Maybe yes and maybe no, but either way, it should certainly cause you to pause and evaluate the beer in a completely different light than if it had gone straight from the stainless fermentor into the bottle.
In the beer world, the term oxidation, often associated with paper-y staleness, is a decidedly negative one. However, what most people don’t realize is that oxidation is also responsible for a host of positive flavors. Some of the unique characteristics found in many aged big beers—dried fruit, vanilla, and that gooey caramel goodness—are all due to oxidation.
In a typical straight-to-bottle beer that has seen zero barrel aging, the oxidation that takes place in the cellar comes from residual oxygen that was introduced to the beer during brewing and/or bottling. In this case, oxidation occurs slowly, and it may take many years for the rich vintage flavors to develop.
Conversely, in barrel aging, oxidation occurs much more quickly because the porous barrels let minute amounts of oxygen replace any evaporated liquid. Since the amount of oxygen is always increasing, the resulting bottled beer should already have many of those lush flavors that typically require additional cellaring, making many barrel-aged beers ready to drink at the time of purchase.
In addition to the matured flavors that come from barrel aging, oak-derived flavors also slowly seep into the beer. The majority of these come from compounds such as eugenol (clove), lactones (peach, coconut), guaiacol (cinnamon), and vanillin (vanilla). Which of these flavors end up in a beer is largely dependent on the type of oak (e.g., French vs. American) used for the barrel and the degree of toast.
The important thing to understand when it comes to these wood-derived flavors is that they are relatively stable and won’t develop much. As other beer flavors tighten with age, these flavors can become more prominent. However, studies have shown that they still slowly fade over time, with the exception of cinnamon whose presence has actually been found to increase.
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In many aging beers, autolysis plays a role in the overall flavor profile. Autolysis occurs when the walls of a yeast cell deteriorate and break down, releasing its nnards into the liquid. The resulting flavors are typically “meaty”—ranging from blood in stout-like beers to teriyaki/soy sauce in brown beers to toasted nuts in light beers. While autolysis perhaps adds a bit of complexity in very small amounts, it’s generally viewed as an off-flavor.
For autolysis to occur, yeast must obviously be present in the bottle; thus, filtered beers are free of its effects while bottle-conditioned beers are not. In barrel-aged beers, most yeast has typically fallen out of suspension and formed a sediment cake at the bottom of the barrel. As long as a brewery is careful not to disturb this cake while bottling, the finished beer will have very little, if any, yeast in it. Therefore the beer should have a very low potential for autolysis flavor development—a definite positive.
It’s important to note that when a barrel-aged beer possesses flavors of autolysis, it is most likely due to autolysis that occurred in the barrel and will therefore not increase in intensity if cellared further.
In almost all cases, beer is aged in used barrels, with either wine or spirits getting first dibs at the virgin oak. The absorptive wood soaks up whatever liquid it’s housing, so when the barrel is later filled with beer, it will release the previous wine/spirit into the beer. Like autolysis, in small quantities this can add a pleasant complexity, but if over-saturated—particularly in the case of spirits—the final beer can come out quite boozy.
A primary reason to age big beer is to let the booziness often found in a fresh bottle oxidize and mellow. However, when the booziness is cellar-derived, it is often the case that it will never mellow, or if so, at an absolute crawl. In this event, as other “beery” flavors tighten with time, the spirit-obtained booziness will remain quite constant and can easily become overwhelming.
Wait or Not?
Considering all these factors, the answer to the whether or not you should cellar barrel-aged beers further is not an easy one and comes down to the individual beer. However, it’s often the case that breweries adequately age the beer in the barrels, and you will usually find that most signs point to no additional time—or perhaps a minimal amount of time—being needed.
As always, exceptions abound, but err on the side of caution; it’s always better to drink a barrel-aged beer too young than too old. And just as with any beer you’re considering putting down in the cellar, if at all possible, try a bottle first to see whether you think further aging is needed or desirable.
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.