Barrel Aged and Sour Beers

We are coming up on the cool time of the year when fireplaces, warm meals and family start to take center stage in our lives. As a great accord to the holidays I think it’s wonderful to have a great tasting high alcohol barrel aged beer by my side to warm me from the inside out, but then again that’s just me. According to Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco California it was historically the great oak barrel that was the vessel of choice for beer, as that truly was the only technology employed for beer storage. This in turn led to many discoveries of how to properly use oak in the storage of beer.
For one, it was found that if the barrel was fresh, the character of the oak would come through prominently in the finished beer product. If the barrel had been used many times, the oak character would start to cease, but the character of the beer would begin to turn sour from secondary fermentation by bacteria. In some beer cultures this was deemed an undesirable trait and as a result the barrel was taken out of use and the beer was disposed of.
However some of the cultures were especially fond of sour beer and it became a new style to perfect just the right souring with the right combination of grain and even fruit.
More modern barrel aging techniques have led to the use of Whiskey, Rum and at times wine barrels for aging beer. Due to the high alcohol content of the previously stored liquid the barrel is considered to be relatively sterile. This approach to barrel aging beer can lead to some very unique and very tasty results. Hints of bourbon, vanilla and chocolate in a bourbon barrel aged stout for instance. This would be my choice in a snifter glass sitting by the fire with a good book.
For right now though let’s explore the world of sour beers. Some sour beer gets it’s unique sour flavor from a special yeast called Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. The picture below depicts it on a cellular level with an electron microscope compliments of vittiro.com

Still some beers obtain their souring properties from bacteria like Lactobacillus or Pediococcus. As a general rule these are undesirable bacteria in your beer and lead to eventual demise of the finished product.

The oldest known intentionally souring brewery is in Belgium and it is the Rodenbach Brewery of Roesalare.

Sour beers tend to be tart and highly carbonated. I don’t generally shy away from sour beers but they are definitely not my favorite. The beers tend to have low hopping rates, and tend to be crisper, dryer, and can take on champagne like character with it’s effervescent carbonation levels. One of my favorites is a Kriek beer that uses the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria inherent on the skins of cherries. (The base beer is a lambic, which is already sour)  They are generally best after at least two years aged in the cellar. I have had the wonderful experience of having one that was made here locally by a talented home brewer and aged quite nicely in his cellar.

One of my other favorites that is produced commercially and is generally quite nice is Framboise. This style of sour uses raspberries as it’s primary flavor and when done appropriately is very refreshing and quite tasty.

All of these beers stem from the base beer called Lambics. Lambics are sour beers fermented by open fermentation to allow wild yeast and bacteria to alter the flavors of the beer into sour. There are other sour beers to consider that come from the base of lambics like Geuze, Mars, and Faro. I would suggest to you the reader, to do some research on these other beers and learn exactly what they entail. (If sour beer interests you)  The world of sours is quite large and it is also growing with some of the new offerings from young American craft breweries. While I was in GABF in Denver Colorado I tried as many sour beers as I could just to get an idea what our fellow American Brewers are doing with sour brews. I was pleasantly surprised. I tried a sour barrel aged beer by Nebraska Brewing company that had been aged in chardonnay oak barrels, it was an outstanding beer, and for me, was my favorite the entire time I was in Denver. Even with such great American sour beer offerings, I think for generations to come we will find it quite difficult to compete with Belgian Sours, as they were the first and will probably be the last when it comes to sour brew.

Next week we are going to focus on some dark beer. I consider them to be quite appropriate as we are entering the cooler time of year and the holiday gatherings. So until then may your pints be full and your taps always flowing.

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  • About the Author

    Craig McPheeters

    Craig J. McPheeters is a freelance writer, founding brewer of Bricktowne Brewing Co. and a registered Beer Judge Certification Program beer-competition judge. He is actively authoring two publications set to be published by 2018. When he isn't ... Full Profile
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