Brewer’s Perspective: The Right Beer for the Right Barrel

When it comes to barrels, brewers generally agree that the right beer to stand up to the assertive flavors of bourbon is a stout or porter. However, that doesn’t mean they are the best styles for other spirits.

Jared Williamson Mar 25, 2019 - 4 min read

Brewer’s Perspective: The Right Beer for the Right Barrel Primary Image

At Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, Missouri, Lead Brewer Jared Williamson shares some of the thought process behind the barrels and beers they joined together for the brewery’s Ibex Cellar Series.

“We decide on the beer style first and then the kind of barrel that we think will work best. Then we source what we need. It’s a collective process where we bat around a lot of ideas, but usually it’s finding flavors that will work with each other.

“For our pumpkin ale, a beer we’ve been making for a really long time and that does really well for us, we wanted to do something special when we used a barrel. Because of the flavors of the beer and the sweetness, we decided on rum barrels. We could have used bourbon barrels, but we just figured that the booze would run all over the beer, and we wanted something complementary.

“But there were challenges with the rum barrels. We sourced from distilleries in the Caribbean, and a lot of the barrels were really old; they had been bourbon barrels or for sherry, so they have a lot of character, but we had an issue with some. At the end of it, I’d say about 70 percent of what we got were worthy of the Ibex series. The result was pumpkin assertive but with sweet candy notes, a lot of the rum, and some heat. The barrel really accentuated what was already in the beer.

“What we learned from using peated Scotch barrels is that their strength is their strength. For our twenty- first anniversary, we made a simple base beer with Optic malt from a farm where our cofounder’s wife’s family grew barley. The beer was so strong that it was basically like carbonated Scotch.

“Sometimes with bourbon barrels, people brew a beer and just say, ‘Okay, here it is,’ and the booze can be really dominant. We didn’t want that with the Scotch; we didn’t want to knock people over. So when we brewed the anniversary beer again, we used Simpsons Golden Promise—what I believe is the finest U.K. base malt. Knowing from experience that the final beer would have huge Scotch character, we brewed a non-barrel-aged version of the beer to blend with what was in the barrel and blended it to where we wanted.

“Most recently, we did a barrel-aged saison. We knew that we wanted to use wine barrels, and I was really into the idea of sauvignon blanc barrels because I thought the fruity character would complement the flavors of the beer. So we sourced from local wineries. After 3 months of aging, when we blended the barrels, the beer had taken on this really nice tannic character and fruity notes, but still the beer was there. Finding complementary flavors that highlight the beer is important, and the same is true with blending the barrels to make sure that you achieve the right balance. “We work with a relatively small percentage of barrels, and in this series, a lot of the barrels that come in are one-and-done for us. Some go into our cellar for fruit trials and a research and development program, but mostly they head elsewhere afterward.

“What we’ve learned when it comes to brewing into special barrels is that it’s quality over quantity. We know that not every barrel is going to be great, so we have to be ready to let them go before they get to the public.”