Aging Gracefully

The mature flavor of a barrel-aged beer is worth waiting for.

By John Chandler May 19, 2009 Published in the October 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

Hair of the Dog’s barrel-aged Fred From the Woodbrew.

Considering that so many Americans go to extremes to preserve the trappings of youth, we’ve developed an odd obsession with food and drink that have benefited from extreme aging. Steakhouse menus now boast how long their beef’s been hanging in the cellar; a pungent, well-aged, soft-ripened cheese will make any foodie flush; and of course, vintage vino has always been a status symbol.

Now, brewmasters are getting into the act, pouring their perfectly good ales into new or used wood barrels to sit for months on end. There, the brew absorbs the flavor characteristics of its previous occupant—bourbon, brandy, chardonnay or whatever—while adopting woody accents from the barrel that round out the malt and hops, resulting in a smoother, infinitely more opulent brew than the original.

“It’s a great way to take a beer you already have and make a new beer out of it,” notes Full Sail’s head brewmaster, John Harris.

Make that a potent new beer. Aging often requires a sturdy brew to start, one that’s high enough in hops and alcohol content (at least 8 percent) to withstand months of idle time without oxidizing or going “skunky.” During that period, some of the water evaporates, boosting the alcohol content by 1 to 2 percent.

The downside is that barrel-aged beers require time and space that most local brewers just don’t have, which is why they usually produce small batches only. Mark your calendars, however, and you just might land a bottle or two of the best.

Twice a year—on his company’s anniversary, November 10, and on April 22 (Earth Day)—Alan Sprints, owner of Portland’s Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, sells his barrel-aged Fred From the Wood direct from his brewery’s loading dock for $120 a case. Made from his signature strong ale, called Fred, the beer has been seasoned between six and eight months in new oak barrels.

“It’s usually all gone in less than two hours,” says Sprints.

A similar fervor gripped fans of Full Sail’s bourbon-barrel Black Gold last year. Smoky and silken, Harris’s stout flew off the shelves in less than a week. After nearly a year of barrel aging, his next batch, Topsail Imperial Porter, will become available February 1 at upscale local groceries such as Whole Foods and New Seasons.

It may seem like a long time to wait, but like kids waiting to open presents at Christmas, so feverish is the anticipation among barrel-age believers, they actually begin to feel young again.

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