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You've seen the term 'barrel aged' all over your local beer shop. Barrel aged stout, barrel aged barleywine, barrel aged IPA...you name it. But what are you getting when you pick up a bottle? For the most part, a barrel aged version of a beer is going to be a fuller flavored—and generally more expensive—version of the base beer, in part thanks to the flavors imparted by the barrel itself (and whatever booze lived in that barrel before your beer.)
These days, brewing equipment made of metal is commonplace. From efficient copper kettles to stainless steel fermenters, sanitation, consistency, and controlled processes are key. But for thousands of years, beers were not only aged in wood but brewed, fermented, and transported in wood, too. Oak was durable and portable, but it also came with its share of downsides. Wooden barrels are expensive and labor intensive to make, so brewers needed to reuse a barrel multiple times. They're incredibly difficult to clean and because of oak's porous texture, barrels make a great home for spoilers like bacteria and wild yeast.*
* To help create an airtight seal and keep spoilers at bay, some brewers would line the inside of barrels with resins known as 'pitch.' A pitch lining also kept more delicate beers from tasting oaky or tannic.
While old-time brewers didn't have the choice to opt out of wood storage, today's beer makers have options. The law dictates that bourbon makers can only use a barrel once, but after that first use, the expensive casks are certainly not discarded. Bourbon barrels are sent around the world to be filled and refilled with the likes of Scotch, Irish whiskey, sherry, and most recently, beer. Because the flavors of a bourbon barrel are rich and intense, they generally work best with robust brews—beers with roasted dark chocolate flavors, like imperial stout, go beautifully with the toffee and vanilla flavors of bourbon. And bourbon barrels aren't the only containers brewers are using, either: you'll also see sherry, wine, tequila, and rum barrels imparting their distinct flavors to today's beers.
Quite a bit of skill comes into play when making these brews: each individual cask has its own distinct character. Some barrels will come out tasting more toasty, some more sweet. Blending liquid from different barrels together helps round out the final flavor. The aging and tinkering process takes time and a large amount of space, and the expense of it all will be reflected in the beer's final price tag. But once the initial sticker shock has worn off, get ready for a wide array of intense and exciting flavors. These beers are big, bold, and unforgettable; perfect for pairing with cold-weather meals. Here are nine of our favorites to seek out.
Deschutes The Abyss (Bend, Oregon)
This imperial stout, partly aged in Bourbon, Pinot Noir, and new oak barrels, is a cigar lover's dream. The roasty bitter backbone is highlighted by the brewers' addition of blackstrap molasses, licorice, vanilla beans, and cherry bark. You're left with charred aromas of cherry pipe tobacco with just a hint of spearmint. Flavors of sarsaparilla, anise, and burnt sugar add depth to this rich and chocolaty beer. Abyss is big and bold, but superbly balanced. The barrel aging not only contributes fruity, nutty flavors but provides necessary tannins to slice through the viscous texture, leaving a dry, biting finish. One note: Barrel aged beers like this (while delicious fresh) also age beautifully. Think of cellaring big beers as being a little like simmering a stew—over time, the flavors blend together harmoniously and any harsh elements have a chance to mellow out. Head over here for tips on cellaring beer.
Drink it with: Steak and pepper cream sauce. The charred flavors in the beer will accentuate the browned steak, while standing up to creaminess of the sauce.
Revolution Brewing Straight Jacket (Chicago, Illinois)
The rum-soaked pineapple scent of this barleywine (which was aged in bourbon barrels) may make you do a double take: is this a beer or a cocktail? It's fruity and creamy, reminiscent of white chocolate, ripe pears, and Chambord. These flavors are tough to find in a beer without it tasting fake or saccharin-sweet, which is what makes Straight Jacket so very special.
Victory Brewing With Earth Bread and Brewery: Earth and Flame (Downingtown, Pennsylvania)
From the first sip of this bourbon barrel aged smoked Scotch ale, a campfire comes to mind. The beer swirls with nutty, earthy aromas, thanks to a bit of peated malt—the stuff you'll see in smoky Scotches. Don't worry, the smokiness here isn't overpowering. It's balanced with hints of grapes, macaroons, and big vanilla flavors that mimic a malted milk ball. As much as I love a classic rauchbier, it's those additional sweet notes that take Earth and Flame to the next level.
Drink it with: Mushrooms sautéed with rosemary. The smoky sweetness of this beer is great for bringing out the earthy flavors of mushrooms, and the piney herbs bring a pop of freshness.
Brooklyn Black Ops (Brooklyn, New York)
If you soaked chocolate chip cookie dough in bourbon, it would have a lot in common with Black Ops, an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. Cocoa powder, dark brown sugar, and molasses blend together to offer a bit of sweetness, but this is by no means a sugar bomb. A strong, yet pleasant burn makes its way into the brew, warming your whole body with each sip. The beer is bottled flat and refermented with Champagne yeast (rather than a standard brewer's yeast), yielding a biting carbonation and earthy dryness.
Drink it with: Peanut butter cheesecake. The pairing evokes a sophisticated Reese's Cup, and the cuts through the richness of the dessert like a shot of espresso.
Almanac Barrel Noir (San Francisco, California)
This stout aged in tequila barrels offers something like the flavor of chocolate chip pancakes topped with rich agave syrup—the honey-like agave influence and slight tang from the tequila barrels sets this beer apart from the rest by accentuating the chocolate malt flavors while contributing bright splashes of lime and caramelized bananas. An intense char, particularly in the aroma and on the finish prevents the nectar-tinged beer from being too sweet.
Pair with: Barbecue brisket. (No sauce needed.) The beer's caramelized flavors and hint of smokiness play off the carbonized edges of the meat, while the hints of zippy lime and nuttiness in the beer cut through the beef's richness.
Hitachino Nest XH (Ibaraki, Japan)
Shochu is a Japanese distilled beverage made from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or rice. This Belgian-style dark ale aged in shochu casks offers a unique and delicious take on barrel aging. The base beer lends round flavors of plums, peanuts, and cinnamon, and the casks add a crisp tang, almost like salt air, with the tiniest hint of sour funk. It's quite easy-drinking despite its 8% ABV. Red apple, yam, and burnt sugar aromas draw you in to this bright, refreshing beer that finishes slightly bitter and crisp.
Drink it with: Tapas. Garlic shrimp, fried croquettes, pan con tomate, and meatballs are all great partners for XH. The fruitiness and depth of flavor stands up to the rich tapas, while the brew's surprisingly light body helps to cleanse the palate.
Ola Dubh 18 (Alva, Scotland)
The name "Ola Dubh" (ola-doo) is Gaelic for "black oil" and as soon as you pour this Old Ale (aged in Highland Park 18 Scotch barrels) into your glass, you'll understand why. Its slick texture combined with aromas of tar, dark chocolate, and tobacco prepare you for something big before you even sip. But you'll quickly realize that this is a remarkably balanced beer. The hint of smokiness and nuttiness from the malt is reminiscent of mesquite roasted almonds, and the barrels (which held sherry before they held Scotch) deliver sweet flavors of toffee and figs.
Drink it with: Roast beef tenderloin. The meaty nature of the beer combined with the relatively light body accentuates the juicy beef, without leaving you in a heavy-food coma.
Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper (San Marcos, California)
This is a quintessential bourbon barrel aged imperial stout, a benchmark example of the style. It's all about the chocolate-covered caramel flavors, with jammy fruit undertones and little hints of burnt toast. The beer smells like it'll warm you up, but under the alcohol you'll get a waft of peanut brittle, cherry, and woodsy aromas that bring everything together. The tannin from barrel aging offers a necessary astringency, and it all winds up with a little sweet burn—this is 12% ABV, after all.
Drink it with: Vanilla gelato has met its match with this rich and warming brew. No need to add chocolate sauce or cherries when you can just sip on this beer.
Scaldis Prestige de Nuits (Pipaix, Belgium)
This Belgian strong ale, aged in Burgundy barrels from Hospices de Nuits Saint Georges, is the most delicate and refined 'big' beers you'll ever try. It takes almost a year to produce and is fermented a total of three times: in the tank, in the wine cask, and again in the bottle, and the results are both delicate and complex. Juicy red berry flavors come together seamlessly with the rummy malt backbone and the spicy Belgian yeast. Instead of the dark red wine flavors you might expect from the aging, tropical aromas (like guava and passionfruit) are enhanced with a kick of spearmint, a sprinkle of cocoa powder, and a touch of toasted coconut. There's virtually no heat or alcohol harshness and yet, it's one of the strongest beers on this list at 13%.
Drink it with: While both this beer and beignets are technically rich, they give the illusion of being light and airy. The fruity flavors of the beer are a wonderful match for the powdered sugar.
Note: All beers except Port Brewing, Hitachino Nest, and Ola Dubh provided as tasting samples for review consideration.