Head brewer Hollis Wood at Skookum Brewery, with barrel-aged beers in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Head brewer Hollis Wood at Skookum Brewery, with barrel-aged beers in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Barrel aging turns ordinary brews into something extraordinary

Barrel-aged beer is a prestige product that can burnish brewers’ reputations and bottom lines. But it’s difficult and costly to make.

Where do beer lovers turn when they tire of IPAs and pilsners? They reach for barrel-aged beer, which pack more of a punch and can be collected, cellared and saved for special occasions — just like the fine wine in whose barrels they’re often aged.

They’re a prestige product that can burnish brewers’ reputations and bottom lines. But they’re also more difficult and costly to make.

Over the past decade, barrel-aged beer has become as commonplace at breweries as hoppy IPAs. Whether it’s bourbon barrel-aged coffee stouts or white wine barrel-aged wild ales, breweries have fully embraced the barrel.

Barrel-aged beer generally has deeper and more varied character than the base beer that went in. It could be oak flavors from the barrels, alcohol from whatever booze was rested in the barrel, and other characteristics like tobacco or smoke.

“I believe there has to be a lot of experimentation in brewing beer, and barrel-aged beers are a great avenue for that,” said R.J. Whitlow, owner and brewer at 5 Rights Brewing in Marysville. “We owe people an exceptional experience when they come in our doors.”

But what comes out of barrels isn’t always exceptional. Bad barrels can leak, and that can lead to oxidized and infected beer. Instead of a big, sweet stout, brewers end up with a tart, acidic beer.

Arlington’s Skookum Brewery head brewer Hollis Wood had to dump a few of his early barrel attempts. The first version of what would have been Asesinato De Cuervos, an imperial stout aged on cinnamon, chiles, vanilla and cocoa nibs, was infected and oxidized because the barrels didn’t seal properly. Down the drain it went.

“I learned that the type of barrels is really important, and you have to inspect them thoroughly,” Wood said.

Wood also learned that barrels, even if they held the same spirit, can express in different ways. It all depends on the type of wood, the practices of the distillery and what grain was used to make the spirit.

“Woodford Reserve and Heaven Hills, both bourbon barrels, can express differently than say 4 Roses (another bourbon barrel),” he said. “I’m really enjoying Basil Hayden barrels right now. They give the beer a big bourbon flavor and good heat.”

It’s a skill knowing what to put in the barrel. Everett’s Crucible Brewing head brewer Dick Mergens will buy a bottle of wine from the winery where he’s obtaining wine barrels, and drink it to get an idea of what kind of base beer to add to the barrel.

For brewers of wild fermented ales or sours, barrel-aging can make or break the beer. John Spada, owner and head brewer of Spada Farmhouse Brewery, lets his sours and wild ales ferment in the barrel — a process trickier and more finicky than resting stouts and porters in barrels post-fermentation.

The key is expunging every last bit of oxygen out of the barrel and keeping it away from the beer inside.

Spada, who has 80 barrels and a 20-barrel foeder at his farm brewhouse in Snohomish, takes meticulous notes and checks on each barrel weekly to ensure that the beer is developing the way he wants.

Sometimes a barrel that has great potential for making interesting beer is damaged and needs to be salvaged. After receiving damaged gin barrels from Skip Rock Distillery in Snohomish, Spada researched how to repair barrels by reading Elysian Brewing founder Dick Cantwell’s “Wood & Beer” book. He filled the barrels with boiling water to get them to swell up and hammered the bands back down into place. A year later, the result was Juniper and Juice, a gin barrel-aged wild ale.

Barrel-aged beers also need space. Spada’s fortunate to have a farm to house his barrels. Skookum has a warehouse for stacking barrels, and Crucible has two locations — one for its sour barrel-aging operation and the other for stouts and other dark beers.

At 5 Rights Brewing, Whitlow’s barrel-aging efforts are just getting started. Before diving in, he spent time talking about the barrel-aging process with brewers he respected, including Wood and Reuben’s Brews barrel program manager Thor Stoddard. He said they have one thing in common: a strong culinary background.

“They really understand flavors and profiles,” Whitlow said. “Brewers must understand the flavor profiles before the beer goes in a barrel and how adjuncts could alter it.”

Adjuncts, or any non-malt source of fermentable sugars like fruit or syrup, are a big part of barrel-aging beers. Brewers love throwing in coffee, maple syrup, pumpkin, chocolate, vanilla and really any fruit in the barrel. Resting beers for long periods of time allows them soak up those flavors and gives them additional depth to mingle with the oak and leftover spirits or wine.

Wood, who has been barrel-aging beer at Skookum since 2016, has evolved in his thinking on using adjuncts. One of the first barrel-aged beers he made was Breakfast Stout, which has changed over time. “The flavors have gotten bigger,” he said.

“What I’ve learned is to not be afraid,” Wood said. “Don’t hold back. Pile it on.”

Try these barrel-aged beers

Breakfast Stout, Skookum Brewery

Skookum’s legendary imperial stout is a can’t-miss every winter. The fifth iteration is brewed with maple syrup, aged in bourbon barrels from Woodford Reserve and conditioned on whole coffee and vanilla beans. The Arlington brewery’s imperial stout is a perfect nightcap — or great first thing in the morning. We won’t tell. Available in bottles and draft.

Kristi’s Fractured, 5 Rights Brewing

This winter saison is brewed with eight specialty malts, Belgian dark candi sugar and Dupont Saison yeast, and then aged nine months in Heaven Hills bourbon barrels. The Marysville brewery’s beer adheres to some of the advice Hollis Wood gave R.J. Whitlow: Make sure the base beer you’re aging in the barrel is one you’d like to drink. The regular Kristi’s Fractured is a great beer, so the barrel-aged one promises to be amazing. Draft only.

Scuba Saison, Spada Farmhouse Brewery

The Snohomish brewery’s spelt saison is fermented with a blend of rustic saison yeast and Spada’s house-mixed culture, then aged 10 months in white wine barrels with tangerines. The beer, which shares the nickname of John Spada’s daughter, sounds gloriously tasty. Available in bottles and draft.

Rest in Peaches Sour, Crucible Brewing

The Everett brewery released this barrel-aged sour ale, rested on whole peaches and raspberry puree, for its fifth anniversary. It is the brewery’s first bottled barrel-aged sour. The beer is a blend of versions of the sour aged six years, three years and one year in red wine barrels from DeLille Cellars and Laterus Winery. Available in bottles and draft.

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