Barrel-Aged Beers Are Pricey. Which Ones Are Worth It?

Categories: Beer

rsz_bottles.jpg
Alastair Bland
Aged in wood: Mikkeller's Big Worse, left, with Paradox Macallan from BrewDog.
​A year ago, a second-hand bourbon or brandy barrel was running a brewer a hundred bucks on the American market. As of March 2011, the price hadn't changed, according to an industry source.

But the beers that go into these casks, spend a few months there, and leave in fancy bottles are more expensive than ever. A recent stop at City Beer Store (1168 Folsom, at Eighth St.) found North Coast Brewing Company's bourbon barrel-aged Old Stock Ale priced $24.99 for a 16.9-ounce ceramic bottle ― that's $25 a pint. And an 11.2-ounce bottle of BrewDog's Paradox Macallan, aged in sherry barrels, was listed at $14.99. Brewers may say these beers are costly to make, that they must sit in a barrel and take up precious basement space for half a year or more before they can be set loose.

This blogger is skeptical. What does it cost to stash a barrel in the corner, anyway? Still, we doled out some cash for a few of these beers. Okay, so we're not happy that these brews now cost twice what they did two years ago.

So why do we put up with it?

Take a whiff from your wine glass (no, we haven't purchased a set of snifters), have a sip, and you'll see. The flavors that develop when beer is aged in booze-soaked oak are stunning. Bitter, harsh stouts can turn seductive and smooth as silk, and sweet, malty barleywines emerge tasting like vanilla and coconut.

SFoodie's three-man tasting and review (conducted blind) observed several such expected nuances. It also revealed surprises. Take Mikkeller's Big Worse ($15.99/16.9 ounces), a 12-percent ABV barleywine that spent four months in bourbon barrels. Beneath its healthy cap of foam, the beer glowed a ruby, reddish gold. It smelled surprisingly tart, fruity, and acidic ― not like most barleywines we know, liquor-barreled or not. Behind the bright and zesty fruit lurked a hot booziness. In the mouth, the expected oak, vanilla, and whiskey flavors were only faintly present ― yet the beer was surprisingly dry and refreshing. For panelist Andrew, a work-at-home film and video editor, the Big Worse was "the beer I'd want if I was on a hot beach in Mexico" without a yellow lager.

His fellow tasters observed that they would like to be on a hot beach in Mexico without any yellow lager ― but certainly not with Brewdog's Paradox Macallan ($14.99/11.2 ounces), the one imperial stout in our lineup. It showed less of the 1987 Macallan sherry cask than we were anticipating, but it wasn't a crisp, refreshing, "drinkability" that eclipsed the vanilla, oak, and butter. Rather, the beer's imperial stout qualities dominated in spite of the barrel treatment. The 10-percent ABV Paradox smelled potently of chocolate, smoke, coffee, and caramel. And while the booze effects were present ― including that coconut and vanilla ― we felt the flavors from the sherry barrels could not live up to their full potential in such an aggressive, burnt black beer.

On the other hand, oaky butter and booze scents billowed from Firestone Walker's Abacus ($15/22 ounces). Dark brown and lightly carbonated, it's a blend of barleywines that spent as long as a year each in their respective whiskey barrels ― the sum of brewer Matt Brynildson's labors were the panel's favorite in this tasting. We observed nut and butter aromas, faint caramel, and toffee. Abacus was almost overwhelmingly rich in the mouth, oozing with thick caramel, cream, and vanilla flavors. At 13 percent, It was big on alcohol, too.

Shmaltz's Vertical Jewbelation ($13/22 ounces) is also a blend of beers, each of the seven aged between one and four months in rye whiskey barrels. Deep, dark, and tawny in color, with a 10.5-percent ABV with an eighth-inch cap of foam on top, this miscellaneous brown ale was swarming with the delightful effects of boozy wood. Scents of dried fruits lurked in the darkness, too, along with inedibles like old leather furniture and dusty books gone unread for years in the parlor. Still, vanilla, coconut, and butter dominated, reminding us that, though liquor barrel-aged beers are often fantastic, they can be predictable.

One other thing to note: The light and flowery aromatic profile so essential to most beers vanishes almost entirely after time spent in liquor barrels. So we depart with the conclusion that, while boozy brews are a wonderful thing, we're not going to Mexico without a bottle full of hops.

Follow us on Twitter at @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
My Voice Nation Help
8 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
brewerCask
brewerCask

Don't forget all of the additional labor that goes into into the racking and blending process, each barrel has to be filled individually and emptied (and yes, it is often more complicated than pulling a cork and letting it drain) by an hourly worker, a tank has to be cleaned, sanitized and chilled (energy and chemical cost) and the beer has to be conditioned (tank residence time, cO2 / or sugar/fining cost), also remember that the barrels cost ~100 each, having the barrel sit in the corner of the room (or a dedicated barrel room) is only a small fraction of the additional cost.

cannabrewer
cannabrewer

As Meow stated "It takes a long time to produce a brew like this and a lot of different variables that can eff it up." This is so true but kind of a 'water is wet' statement and lacks some of the important qualities that brewers must consider.

My first attempts at brewing showed me just how important some of those issues are such as temperature. Sticking a barrel into some basement may or may not address this but from what I have over time learned is that if your temperature fluctuates more than 6 degree's during the whole process you can eff up a batch really bad. Temperature is one of the major differences between many different brews, lagers, ales and stouts all require a different range or temps. I have never brewed anything other than ales specifically cause of this temp issue and while sanitation is critical and barrel aging adds as many issues as enhances.

Sac916
Sac916

You may want to shop around or outside the Bay Area. I think you are paying a San Francisco premium. Gas is only $0.50 a pint so you will definitely save if you stock up.

John Gibson
John Gibson

Sorry, the only way I pay $15 for a pint of barrel aged beer is if part of that cost is averaged out as the price of a ticket to Europe over many pints, at a Bavarian monastery...

Sean
Sean

If you cant afford barrel aged, bottle aged is just fine. IPAs can hold their flowers in a bottle, barrels are for browns, stouts, and barleywines. That being said, I think big market beers are underaged. Pasteurization is often a culprit here,if the yeast is dead there is no point in aging. Drink REAL LIVE ale thats at least few months old and see the difference. Beer also needs to be aged in room temp, dont fridge it until you are ready i imbibe.

meow
meow

Depending on where you go, the retail markup varies. That bottle of Old Stock Ale was a few dollars cheaper at Whole Foods. If you go to certain bars, you'll pay a different price for a pint as well. It's why I go to Toronado instead of Monk's Kettle. If you're skeptical about "stashing a barrel in a corner", I'm skeptical that you have ever visited a brewery. It's not even just a "taking up space" issue. What if that batch becomes infected, for example? It takes a long time to produce a brew like this and a lot of different variables that can eff it up. Barrel aged beers are quite popular now. Plus if you buy a bottle you can age it for years.

Mike
Mike

Don't miss Deschtes Brewing Company's annual barrel aged offerings: Abyss stout, Black Butte XXI porter (the roman numeral changes each year; I think XXII didn't meet standards so it wasn't bottled but I had it at the Deschutes pub in Portland and thought it was still great), and Mirror Mirror barleywine. They also did a one time barrel aged version of their winter beer, Jubelale: Jubel. I found some bottles last week at Costco.

guest
guest

check out the barrel aged festival at the Bistro in Hayward in November, taste from up to 60 different high quality micro-brew offerings. Until you attend an event like this it's really hard to comprehend the range of flavors and qualities that can be achieved...really it's indescribable and wonderfully eye-opening.

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.
Loading...