How to Barrel Age Beer

Second to hazys, barrel-aged beers are all the rage. Be it trend or taste driven, at some point most homebrewers will get the urge to age beer in a barrel. Here’s what you need to know in order to make great barrel-aged beer.

Barrel aging beer is an artform. After you’ve obtained a barrel, you’ll need a lot of wort and patience. Once the beer is aged to your liking, it’s time to package. Aging can take anywhere from a month to years depending on your goals and flavor preferences. There are two primary (maybe three) reasons for barrel aging. To obtain spirit flavor and to sour beer…and also to give beer that distinct “barrel” character.

Where to Get Barrels

The first step in barrel aging is obvious but challenging. You need a barrel.

The best place to source a spirit barrel is from a local (if you have one) micro distiller. Stop in, buy a drink and share a bottle of homebrew. You’d be surprised how willing people are to collaborate / share, when asked nicely.

Another option is to call up the local (biggish) craft brewery. Assuming they have a barrel program, they will be putting in orders for barrels and it is easy to piggyback your barrel onto one of their orders. You won’t be likely to find a barrel dealer willing to sell you one barrel.

Size Matters

When looking for barrels, you’ll notice that they come in a variety of sizes. Typically, wine barrels are 63 gallons, spirit barrels are 53 gallons, and the micro distillers might be using 10 – 15 gallon barrels. I’ve seen homebrewing specific 5 gallon barrels, I avoid those for reasons we’ll talk about below.

Small Barrel Pros and Cons

A lot of homebrewers get excited about getting a small barrel. Brewer beware. While small 10 – 15 or even 5 gallon barrels have the distinct advantage of being easy to fill, the surface area / volume ratio is really high. This leads to faster extracted flavors. It also leads to oxidation, quickly!

Getting bourbon flavor from a small barrel in a month or two vs waiting six months is a great thing. But the down side comes when it’s time to try and sour or age anything long-term. All that surface area equates to more oxidation and oxygen is never nice to your beer.

Here are the takeaways for small barrels. They’re good for one or two uses if they’ve had spirits in them and you want that spirit flavor in your beer. They’re bad for longer aging or souring projects because there’s too much oxygen exposure due to a lot of surface area.

Large Barrel Pros and Cons

When it comes to 53 or 63 gallon barrels, there are a few upsides and drawbacks. They take longer to impart barrel or spirit flavors. 6 months is a good ballpark figure for getting good bourbon flavor for example. But with some patience, you’ll get there and end up with an excellent beer.

Size is another drawback for the homebrewer. Unless you’re collaborating with your homebrew club, filling a barrel can be a daunting task. Brewing up 53 gallons of beer on a five gallon system is going to take a lot of time and effort. My advice is to at least find one other partner.

One pro for big barrels is that they are better for longer term aging and souring. Over the long haul, you’ll likely be happier with a larger barrel / collaboration project.

Wine vs Bourbon Barrels

There are a few things to keep in mind before committing to a bourbon barrel. Most commercial brewers that are into souring absoluting detest working with bourbon barrels. Why? Because they’re thin staved, burnt to a crisp, and leaky. The bottom line is longevity and maintenance.

If you plan on souring beer in your barrel, go with a wine barrel. It will be much, much easier to work with and last a lot longer too. And your first two beers through the barrel can take on some great wine character…something much less common than bourbon barrel flavor these days.

If bourbon flavor is really your thing, I’d suggest skipping a barrel altogether and simply adding a nice bourbon to your next project at packaging. This isn’t cheating. It’s smart!

Ask yourself, where is the majority of the bourbon or other spirit flavor coming from in most commercial barrel aged beers? From leftover spirit in the barrel. And it’s either in liquid form or soaked into the wood. If you’re using a spirit barrel you’ll only get one or two uses out of it before you’ve extracted all the spirit flavor. And… you’re stuck with a charred and leaky mess to try and sour in…no thanks!

The bottom line is wine barrels are stronger and all around better for sour projects. And if you want spirit flavor in your beer…use spirits!

Taste, Blend, Taste, Package

Now we come to a very subjective task. The task of knowing when to package.

Prior to filling your barrel, drill a hole in it towards the bottom half of the face of the barrel. Fill this hole with a stainless steel nail. When you need to try a sample, all you have to do is pull the nail, take a bit of the beer, sanitize and replace the nail.

These nails are known as “Vinnie nails” and are a popular method used for obtaining a sample of your aging brew.

If you’re souring in a barrel with a mixed culture, you may be tempted to try a sample every few weeks. After time you’ll probably get to know your specific cultures and will be able to more accurately predict when the beer will be ready for packaging.

Many brewers sample on a monthly basis, after an initial aging period of a couple months. You can do what you’re comfortable with. Learn as you go.

Fruit and Barrels

Oftentimes if you’re souring beer and aging in a barrel, you’ll also want to fruit the beer. While you can choose to add fruit directly to your barrel, I’d recommended against this action.

First of all, any fruit going in will be a pain in the keister to clean out later. Adding it to a secondary carboy is preferable for this reason. It also allows you to try many variations of the same sour beer with different fruits. And you can blend some of these together at bottling for even more variety.

Sanitizing, Cleaning, and Storage

In days past, many brewers opted to use harsh chemical concoctions to eliminate all life in a barrel in an effort to start fresh with their preferred culture. While you may need to kill off some nasty bacteria from a barrel occasionally, with the right care, your barrel should maintain a nice balance of desirable yeast and bacteria.

For the time that you need to clean out a barrel, I recommend steaming the heck out of it. It’s a bit of a dangerous operation but pouring boiling water into the barrel and rinsing it out will be one of the simplest and best ways to clean it out. It will also give you a certain degree of sanitation.

Don’t expect to ever full sanitize a barrel. They offer a lot of places for bugs to hide.

Never ever store a barrel empty. The staves will dry up and you’ll have a leaky mess on your hands. If you must, store it, toss some spirits in and roll it around on a daily basis to keep it moist and tight. It is best to simply package and refill a barrel in the same day or within a 24 – 48 hour window.

Final Thoughts

Barrel aging is a topic worthy of a book. For now it’s best learned through experience and practice. Using this guide you can now get out there and find a barrel!

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