Headlining a pairings dinner or as a secret ingredient, barrel-aged brews are gaining traction.
Let’s cut straight to the chase: Pretty much any beer style you can think of has been aged in some sort of barrel by a craft brewery. Bourbon-barrel imperial stouts. Brandy-barrel barley wines. Rum-barrel pumpkin ales. The list could go on. If you can imagine it, you can drink it.
Barrel-aged beers in particular, which often spend months or years aging in wood before consumers sip them, present creative options for restaurants.
Generally speaking, these beers tend to fall into two main groups. The first uses either fresh-wood barrels or barrels that previously held spirits, specifically with the intent of pulling additional flavors into the base beer. The second group of beers, such as Belgian lambics and the multitude of American sours now produced, uses the physical characteristics of these porous barrels to encourage the growth of wild yeast and friendly bacteria that make those beers so endearing. Both groups fall into the barrel-aged category, but we’ll focus on the first group: beers that intentionally acquire that barrel character.
I chatted with Jesse Friedman, co-founder and brewmaster at Almanac Beer Company based in San Francisco. Almanac released its first beer back in 2011, has since put forth dozens of barrel-aged offerings, and has incorporated bourbon, brandy, rye, red wine, and a variety of other barrels. When we spoke, Almanac was preparing to blend its third batch of Dogpatch Sour, a barrel-aged wild ale with California Rainier cherries and sourdough yeast, and to release a tequila-barrel-aged stout, which combines that barrel’s spiciness with the stout’s dark malts.
The company’s barrel-aging facility, based in San Jose, recently surpassed a thousand barrels.
Friedman, who was in New York City meeting with restaurant owners and working very closely with restaurant staff to properly showcase Almanac’s beers, says, “Barrel-aged beers are really an affordable luxury. We’re very comfortable competing at the low end of the wine price list.”
Often retailing at $10 or higher for a 375-milliliter bottle, these beers are priced modestly compared to wine but priced a bit higher than a typical IPA. Conveying why the higher price is warranted requires some nuance.