Barrel-aging might be the hottest trend in craft beverages (and more) right now, but supply can be a problem.
The craze is forging full-steam ahead, with virtually every corner of the craft brewing and beverage industry onboard. Competition for both new and used barrels has become intense, especially with boutique food products joining the craze. You can find whiskey-aged pickles, beer and whiskey aged coffee beans, even cask-aged bacon, cigars, and more.
Despite the difficulty and expense in finding barrels, those in the craft brewing world are unsurprisingly undeterred. According to Kevin Collins, Head Brewer at Cider Creek Hard Cider, a craft hard cider company, "Using barrels to either ferment cider or age and condition cider gives your product unique characteristics and nuances that can not be obtained from fermenting or aging in stainless steel.”
Collins not only isn’t dissuaded by the difficulties in finding unique, used barrels, he claims to enjoy the process. “What I love most is the actual "hunt" for rare, one of a kind finds. For example, I recently did a collaboration with Resurgence Brewing Company out of Buffalo, NY. We made history with our collaboration as we were the first brewery and cidery to collaborate on a commercial level. We took 50 gallons of our collaboration and aged it in a very rare Elijah Craig Bourbon barrel that was given to me by Ryan Moloney - owner of Julios Liquors in Westborough, MA and member of the Loch & Key Society, an illustrious underground global whiskey and bourbon club. This cask was used for one of the most famous single barrel series that Elijah Craig has ever done. Customers love these "one off" products that are not available on a macro level. They also love that it will only be produced one time. When it's gone, its gone.”
Eugene, Oregon based Oakshire Brewery is a big proponent of barrel-aged brewing. The company released its fifth barrel-aged brew earlier this year under its Hellshire moniker (used for their barrel-aged products). In addition to its commitment to using casks, the company also promotes barrel-aged brews from other brewers both regionally and nationally at its annual Hellshire Day and Barrel-aged Beer Fest. In the 2nd annual fest, held in March 2015, dozens of barrel-aged brews from all over the country were featured.
Speaking about the Hellshire V brew celebrated at this year’s festival, Oakshire Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk said, "We received some very nice Knob Creek Bourbon barrels at the beginning of the year and formulated a Strong Stout that will marry perfectly with the bourbon and vanilla notes from the barrels. This year's blend is tasting great."
The experience at Cider Creek Hard Cider and Oakshire Brewery points out one of the biggest aspects of using barrels—the need and benefits of networking and partnering with other craft producers. Casks do eventually “wear out”, in a sense, but producers seem to always find another use for the venerable wooden vessel. Again, Collins explains that unlike stainless containers, the barrel imparts some of the essence of what was last aged in it. “If I used a bourbon barrel to age my cider, the second time I use that barrel it will yield characteristics of the bourbon aged cider. The bourbon notes will become more and more subtle the more you use that barrel. So it depends what you are trying to accomplish. If you just want the bourbon notes, you will use the barrel only once or twice. If you are going for characteristics of what you previously pulled out of the barrel, then you can just keep rolling it forward.”
There are almost as many barrel variations as there are people wanting to use them. Although some people think a whiskey barrel is simply a whiskey barrel, even in that area there is considerable variance. Bourbons (and most ryes) are traditionally aged in a well charred white oak barrel. Scotch on the other hand is traditionally aged in uncharred white oak barrels, much like the ones used to produce aged sherries, port, and other wines. In fact, many scotch distillers will use casks already used for sherry. Increasingly, other hardwoods are being used in barrel making, mostly for non-traditional uses (bourbon and scotch makers are notoriously conservative concerning their barrel types.)
Using barrels to age and condition your craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits adds plenty of complexity to both your production and your final product. Unless you have your own cooperage, barrel-aging probably isn’t an option for a large-scale distribution product. Rather, barrel-aging is exactly what craft is about—creating a special product that no one else can duplicate (probably not even by you). Judging from consumer demand, you’ll not only have fun coming up with new uses and products, you’ll also find the casks emptying out almost as fast as you can pour.