Beer commercials tell us that drinking is all about instant gratification. But good things come to those to wait, as the Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, has discovered via its booming line of barrel-aged beers.
"After years of using high-tech methods and stainless steel equipment, it's refreshing to go back to a more rustic way of creating beer," Boulevard brewer Dustin Jamison says. "There's a lot of freedom to make exciting new stuff."
Barrel-aged brews—made by storing beer inside of used wooden barrels in order to impart aromas or taste—are a small but exploding section of the craft beer market. Boulevard's barrel program has grown from a dozen to more than 2,000 barrels in the past six years. Whiskey and bourbon drinkers have been lured into the beer world by the complex, full-bodied brews that aren't as much of a commitment on a school night.
Most bourbon barrels are made from the same type of wood: Missouri oak. But what differs is the amount of char—the intentional singeing of said wood—each distillery requests. Four Roses is smoky, Templeton is heavy on the vanilla and Heaven Hill is almost sweet.
Jamison is constantly sampling beers from Boulevard's cave-aged barrels, where beers are aged for eight to 12 months. He uses tasting notes from these sampling sessions to determine how best to blend beers from barrels of different origins and ages.
"First use" barrels give the beer a boozier character, with strong oak and vanilla notes, says Jamison, whereas a barrel that's already been used to age beer will produce a mellower brew with natural fruit notes. Those "second use" barrels are often tapped for Boulevard's Bourbon Barrel Quad or Imperial Stout, a hearty brew of malted barley and spelt with coffee and plum notes.
As breweries keep rolling out the barrel-aged editions this season, you'll have plenty of opportunities to sit, sip and take your time with beers that reward patience.
If there's a tasting event in your area (Boulevard is distributed in 29 states), you're likely to meet brewer Jeremy Danner. We tapped him to recommend three barrel-aged beers.
Founders Brewing Co.'s Backwoods Bastard: "It blends slightly smoky malt flavors with huge toffee, vanilla and oaky notes from the barrel. This beer is ridiculously drinkable."
Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout: "This massive stout spends time in whiskey barrels, picking up all sorts of awesome flavors and a bit of alcohol. What's amazing, though, is that BCS isn't hot or boozy at all."
Firestone Walker's Parabola: "Firestone Walker kills with its hoppy beers, but its barrel-aged beers are on the same level. Parabola has a huge 14 percent ABV, but it's well hidden in this stout that features big bourbon, vanilla and chocolate flavors. I hear Parabola is amazing aged, but I've never been able to hold on to a bottle for more than a few days."