A few months ago, I read an article about concrete beer fermentation/maturation vessels. They look like eggs, or sort of like Dr. Evil’s spaceship in “Austin Powers.” I was kinda stoked on the idea, then I got violently opposed to it, then totally ambivalent, now kind of just apathetic. Like, whatever, ferment your beer in whatever you want, dude. Shit, ferment your beer in an actual spaceship, I don’t care, as long as the beer tastes good and you, the brewer, like working on a spaceship and like the way the beer turns out. I usually feel this way about a lot of trends. Barrel-aged beer is one of the hottest trends in the craft world, and it has been steadily growing in popularity for years.
Fifteen years ago, barrel-aging beer was a novelty at best, a throw back, a blip of nostalgia similar to the vintage filters you could put on your photos on Instagram. A throwback to what? Bad beer? Oak is a terrible vessel for beer! It’s porous and unsanitary; it’s really hard to get the beer in there, keep the beer in there, and get it out once it’s in there. And most importantly, barrels are a goddamn nightmare to organize and move around, especially in today’s modern warehouse environment. So why did anyone ever put beer in barrels in the first place?
Well, originally, beer was made and stored in clay pots. The ability of the clay to sufficiently hold water (as opposed to a basket, or woven bag) gave the technology a leg up on its competition (there were also watertight sacks made of animals skins, but that sounds disgusting). Pottery is, however, quite fragile. Its ability to be used to transport liquid is diminished by the fact that it will break if dropped. The invention of the barrel solved that problem. It was a water-tight vessel, capable of being rolled, dropped, and smacked around, and would keep the liquid inside it safe and sound. In fact, barrels became the default vessel for transporting all liquids for the next 2,000 years. The fact that a barrel is basically a big hollow wheel that can hold your liquid while it rolls, was huge. You could roll your beer onto a ship, and then roll it back out when you reached your destination, which was super clutch.
So what’s the deal with barrels now? There’s a lot to it, but I think part of the reclamation of barrels as part of beer culture was originally a pursuit of authenticity. Much in the way that craft brewers were finding or rediscovering all kinds of ancient, hyper-local, or rustic beer, the barrel became a part of that quest for an authentic beer experience. Take all your modern brewing techniques and practices and throw those out, and simply fill a barrel with your beer, let it age in there, then you’ll have some real authentic beer, just like they had in ye olden days. However flawed that is, I think that original pursuit of authenticity has given way to a real discovery of the barrel as an ingredient, as a component of the beer, and a tool to develop flavors.
There are some really amazing things done in wood cellars. Whether it’s the small, top secret barrel program at Steamworks, the tiny, all-wood Casey Brewing and Blending, the seemingly insane barrel collection at Avery, or the massively impressive “Forest” at New Belgium, brewers are truly developing the potential of wood-aged and fermented beers. One of the biggest boosts to craft brewing in the beginning was industrial beer: They figured out all the science and technique of making good, clean, technically-sound beer. Outside of Belgium, there isn’t a whole lot of that same type of grounding foundational information for wood beer, so the next decade will be super exciting for this segment of craft beer, as we figure out all the amazing things a barrel can do.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.