My editor at The Observer, Kathleen Purvis, wrote the book on bourbon. “Bourbon: A Savor the South Cookbook” (UNC Press, $18) was published this week. And despite all of the exhaustive research the book no doubt required, she still wondered whether putting beer in bourbon barrels was a gimmick.
I am here to tell you it is not.
To qualify as bourbon, a whiskey must – among other things – be aged in new, charred oak barrels. After the bourbon is removed, these barrels are often sent to other distilleries and used to age other things, including non-bourbon whiskeys. In recent years, though, craft breweries have been snatching them up.
Aging beer in a bourbon barrel imparts all of the wonderful notes you expect in the whiskey itself: coconut, vanilla, oak and a boozy sweetness. Because these flavors complement maltier styles like porters, stouts and barleywines, those are the styles most often bound for barrels.
Triple C Brewing will age its Up All Night Breakfast Porter in bourbon barrels for the first time this year, where the bourbon flavors will no doubt blend well with the base beer’s chocolate and coffee notes.
NoDa Brewing has aged a few beers in bourbon barrels. The rye spiciness inherent in NoDaRyeZ’d, its double rye India pale ale, provides a nice contrast to the vanilla-like sweetness imparted from the wood. Ass Clown Brewing in Cornelius has aged its old ale in bourbon, and when it’s served on nitro, using nitrogen to create a creamy head, it’s one of that brewery’s smoothest beers.
Birdsong Brewing recently picked up a few barrels for its fall seasonal Sweet Potato Abbey Ale.
Even the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, which holds fast to the German beer-purity law requiring beer be brewed with barley, water, hops and yeast, is aging beers in barrels (after all, the purity law doesn’t mention anything about what to do with the beer once it’s brewed). So far, Old Meck’s Rauchbier, Baltic Porter, Dunkel and Yule Bock have spent time in barrels that once held Maker’s Mark.
Some breweries also age beer in wine barrels – but that’s another article.
Daniel Hartis is the author of “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City,” and the editor of the website www.charlottebeer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @charlottebeer.
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