Pizza in a wood-fired oven, hardwood floors, wood –aged beer: Let’s face it, everything is better when wood is involved. Wood-aged beer, in particular, is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately in advertising. While it is surely not a new concept, it does appear to be experiencing a resurgence. For years, measures have been taken to protect the wood from the barrel from influencing the flavor of the beer, but now more and more brewers are actually trying to get that wood flavor into their brew.
Wood-aged beer is, as you might imagine, beer that has some contact with wood while it is aging. It’s not exactly rocket science is it? The idea is that the wood adds flavor, kind of like hickory chips in a barbecue grill, and makes the beer better, Whether or not you believe it makes the beer better is entirely a matter of personal taste, but it does clearly change the flavor a bit.
What is the difference between barrel-aged and wood-aged beer?
A lot of people use the terms “wood-aged” and “barrel-aged” interchangeably, but they are actually not entirely the same. You could argue that wood-aged beer started with barrel aging, since beer always used to sit around in big wood barrels and that old-world flavor seems to be what modern wood-aged beers are striving for.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, not many people have the time or resources to employ old-world craftsmanship in a process like making beer. The idea of letting a perfectly drinkable beer sit around for months to age in a wooden barrel would seem ludicrous to many mass-production breweries, or beer drinkers, for that matter. Still, many breweries would love to get the barrel-aged flavor into their beer.
While some breweries will actually do traditional barrel aging by putting their product in big wooden barrels, according to Realhomebrew.com, many will cheat and add their wood flavor in the fermenting process by throwing in wood chips or even wooden planks. The method of throwing wood into the fermenting process would be what most people are talking about when they discuss wood-aging of beer nowadays.
Why is alcohol often stored in wood barrels?
Technically, alcohol is aged in wood barrels, not stored. If storage were the issue, plastic or metal barrels would actually be cheaper, but they are also airtight, so the liquid inside would not age at all. Wood, however, allows the alcohol to “breathe” and age. Wine is the alcohol that is most associated with aging in wooden barrels, but similar principles apply to all types of alcohol.
As alcohol ages in a wooden barrel, according to Indianapublicmedia.org, it starts to absorb some of the chemical compounds from the wood. Among those compounds is tannin, which makes a wine tend to be a bit more dry. The alcohol will also absorb some flavor from the wood and from whatever substances have been stored in the wood barrel in the past.
What breweries currently make wood-aged or barrel-aged beer?
An article in the LA Times lists several breweries that make interesting wood- and barrel-aged beers. One such brewery, Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewery, creates a line of unique barrel-aged beers using barrels from wineries in Sonoma County. The barrels held a variety of different wines in the past and retained some of that flavor, so the beer is infused with a slightly different taste.
Other brewers on that list used other types of alcohol barrels to flavor their beer. The Golden Road Brewery makes a brew called El Hefe Anejo that is aged in tequila barrels. Eagle Rock Brewery makes beer aged in both wine and bourbon barrels. Brewers will often blend their brews to make the finished product, as the Firestone Walker Brewery does.
Does wood-aged beer have more alcohol than other beers?
There is a feeling, accurate or not, that wood-aged beer is stronger than regular beer. Part of the reason for that is that the wood gives it a more robust flavor, and another part may just be that people always expect a “specialty” beer to have more of a kick.
The website Greatbrewers.com asserts that wood-aged beers tend to have an alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage of between 3.8% and 12%. While beer in general can have an ABV anywhere between .5% and 21%, most beers tend to be in the 4% to 7% range. This would seem to indicate that wood-aged beer is comparable to other beers in alcohol content, with a higher minimum and a lower maximum ABV.
While you might look at a piece of wood and say “Hey, that would make a fine shelf,” a brewer might be looking at it and thinking “Hey, that will make a fine ale.” Whether it’s an oak barrel or a bunch of hickory chips thrown into the beer during fermentation, wood can definitely put a new twist on a beer.