Recently, a lot of brewers have followed the same routine for new releases: Brew a big beer, throw it in a bourbon barrel for a few months, release limited quantities at a high price, and watch the beer lovers line up outside the bottle shops. At one point, this was an edgy, experimental way to alter a beer. Now with almost every major American craft brewery offering an example of this style, the true trendsetters have moved on to the next frontier in the world of spent oak: empty wine barrels.
Where bourbon barrels tend to complement the natural flavor of the base beer, wine barrels have the power to transform the beer into something new. “Fresh tart cherries, cranberries, caramel, toasty oak, and a light tannic dryness … ” Sounds like a good pinot noir, right? Not quite. These are my tasting notes from a recent encounter with Russian River Brewing Company’s Supplication (7.0% ABV, $15 for 375 mL), a brown ale that is aged in used pinot noir barrels. Deliciously tart, fruity, and oaky, Supplication is the product of Russian River owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, whose line of popular wine-barrel aged beers is a major reason for the hype surrounding the style today.
Russian River began as a side-project of the Korbel Wine Company in Sonoma County, California, giving Cilurzo immediate access to empty oak. “We use wine barrels because they are local to us and we have hundreds of wineries within a handful of miles,” says Cilurzo, whose early experiments set the trend for wine-barrel brews to come.
Inspired by traditional Belgian brewing techniques, Cilurzo tweaked the process used to make Flemish sour ales and Lambic beer. These styles rely on naturally occurring fermentation, allowing the wild yeast Brettanomyces (aka Brett) as well as any other microorganisms in the air to ferment the beer, giving it distinctive funky and tart flavors. In Russian River’s case, Brett and other bacteria are added during the barrel-aging process.
“I wanted to take my favorite part of a Lambic beer and use it in a beer I made using a local wine barrel,” says Cilurzo. The combination of fruit and oak imparted by the wine barrel and the funk and tartness of wild fermentation proved to be a successful pairing. Cilurzo’s two-barrel experiment grew into a line of beers requiring roughly 600 wine-barrels.
It’s not quite as easy as throwing some beer and bugs into a barrel, though. A recent tasting showed achieving perfection with wild-fermented wine-barrel aged beers is a tricky balance of tartness, funk, and barrel characteristics. When those three qualities harmonize, though, the result is astounding.
Russian River’s Temptation (7.5% ABV, $17 for 375 mL), a Belgian-style blonde aged in Chardonnay barrels, hits that special note. Crisp, tingling tartness gives way to toasty croissant, zesty lemon, and fresh sour cherry that finishes with luscious butterscotch-laden oak. It’s the best characteristics of your favorite California chardonnay and Belgian blonde ale combined into one perfect sip.
Wild fermentation isn’t the only way to produce great wine-barrel aged beers, however, and this is where things get interesting for the trend’s future. Victory Brewing Company, the twenty-seventh largest brewery in America by production according to the US Brewer’s Association, recently released a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel aged Baltic porter called Red Thunder (8.5% ABV, $8 for 750 mL). It’s a delicious dessert-in-a-glass beer with a flavor profile somewhere in between chocolate covered espresso beans and Raisinettes. When a large brewery that is generally focused on brewing traditional styles producing a wine-barrel aged beer, it’s a sign that the trend has reached the mainstream. Experimental breweries are beginning to put beer into whatever new kinds of spent oak they can get their hands on.
One variety that has been particularly popular of late is sweet wine and Brandy barrels. Scottish barrel-aging pioneers J.W. Lees have released several examples of their Harvest barleywine aged in these sugary, high-alcohol barrels (all 11.5 ABV, $12 for 275 mL). Their Calvados aged edition plays on the classic combination of apple and caramel with a flavor profile reminiscent of everyone’s favorite autumn treat. When placed in Port casks, their barleywine becomes a complex sipper, with notes of figs, almonds, peat smoke, and caramel.
Beyond these new varieties of oak, Shaun Hill, head brewer of the lauded Hill Farmstead brewery in northern Vermont, sees another trend on the horizon. “One common trend you might see more often, however, is brewers purchasing large oak foeders,” says Hill. Foeders are the massive vessels used to age large quantities of wine. These types of containers were used for the fermentation of beer before the era of airtight stainless steel tanks.
Hill thinks brewers will continue to do more fermentation within oak vessels, embracing this organic aspect of retro beer making. More and more, it seems as though the innovators’ new and edgy ideas are really about as ancient it gets. The natural evolution of experimentation has led the brewing world right back to where it started. Better prepare your palate for a sour, funky future.
On top of what’s mentioned above, here are six more picks for beers that best express the capabilities of wine-barrel aging
It’s Alive! White Wine Barrel Edition, Mikkeller
Mikkeller, Denmark. 8.0% ABV, $13 (375 mL)
Brewery-less Danes Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller (better known as Mikkeller) brewed this Brett-heavy golden ale at De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium then aged it in white wine barrels. The nose was best described by a fellow taster who exclaimed: “This smells like the barn I want to get married in!” (Later clarified to explain it smelled like a new barn without animals in it yet.) The taste is similarly funky, with the white wine barrel contributing a hint of gasoline and smooth, vanilla oak on the finish.
Bitter Monk, Anchorage Brewing Company
Anchorage, AK. 9.0% ABV, $20 (750 mL)
Anchorage Brewing founder Gabe Fletcher only uses large oak foeders from Harlan Estate Winery to ferment and age his beers. Bitter Monk is a heavily hopped double IPA fermented with Brettanomyces and aged in an ex-Chardonnay vat to produce an unusually delicious mix of astringent grapefruit juice, over-ripe apple, and toasty butterscotch flavors.
Interlude, Allagash Brewing Company
Portland, ME. 9.5% ABV, $20 (750 mL)
Allagash re-ferment a traditional Saison with Brettanomyces from the local Maine air then age portions of it in Merlot and Syrah barrels from France to make Interlude. With flavors of tart cherry and lemon balanced by fruity apple and toasted croissant, this is exercise in restraint- showing how sophisticated and understated, yet flavorful, ales can be produced through wine-barrel aging.
Oude Tarte, The Bruery
Placentia, CA. 7.5% ABV, $22 (750 mL)
The Bruery’s take on a Flemish Red Ale, this one spends plenty of time in red-wine barrels, evident by its tear-inducing, mouth-puckering tartness. There is some juicy, ripe cherry and a hint of earthy leather and oak hidden beneath the sourness. If you were into Warhead candies, this one’s for you.
L’Ultima Luna, Birrificio del Ducato
Roncole Verdi, Parma, Italy. 13.0% ABV, $20 (330 mL)
The Italians have embraced wine-barrel aging and do it with more originality than anybody else. A wild-fermented barleywine aged for 9 months in Amarone barrels, Ducato’s concoction gives off rich flavors of figs and prunes, almond paste, and charcoal. More of a dessert-wine than a beer, this is an example of barrel-aging to the extreme.
DOMO, Tired Hands Brewing Company
Ardmore, PA. 6.8% ABV, Draft only
Up-and-coming experimentalists Tired Hands brewed this dark Saison with rye malt then fermented and aged it in a blend of local red-wine barrels and bourbon barrels that had previously held a barleywine. DOMO hits the palate first with a tingling lemony tartness that fades into deep dark chocolate and finishes with spicy oak. This is the art of contrasting flavors at its finest.