Whisky Advocate

Guest blog #8: Oak aged beers, more than meets the malt

September 8th, 2010

Stephen Rich, Founder and Director of Definition Ale (, guest blogs with his post entitled “Oak Aged Beers, More Than Meets the Malt”.

A whisky’s or spirit’s flavor is a manifestation of a great many variables. Everything from the grains, the malting process, the water, and the streams that the water flows though, to the climate and geology can greatly affect the final product’s flavor and ultimate character. Although this is not uncommon of other distilled, fermented, or brewed beverages, one aspect of a whisky’s production that is seemingly ingrained into whisky culture more than any other is barrel ageing.

For hundreds of years, barrel aging has enchanted the hearts and palates of sherry, wine, whisky and rum lovers all across the world. But our fascination and infatuation with wood aged beverages has lead to a most dubious usage; barrel aged beer.

Before the invention of steel kegs or casks, large quantities of beer was traditionally housed in wooden barrels, and often served straight from them. This was primarily due to necessity at the time, but now brewers all over the world, most prominently in America, are maturing their beers in oak barrels for the purpose of flavor!

There are more barrel aged beers available to the public now then there have ever been in the industrialized world, and brewers are utilizing the massive variety of barrels available to them to impart unique and exciting flavors and aromas in their beers.

A great example of what fresh oak can do it the Innis & Gunn Original Oak Aged Beer. It is brewed in Scotland, then is aged for 30 days in fresh American White Oak barrels from Bourbon County Kentucky. From there the beer rests in a marrying tun for a further 47 days to allow the flavors imparted by the oak to smooth and mellow. The result is a velvety Scottish Pale Ale with creamy caramel, toffee, and vanilla flavors that glide gently over your palate and bring a touch of sweet oak and spice.

Brewers aren’t only using fresh oak though; Ithaca Beer Co’s Excelsior Old Habit is a strong rye ale aged in just that, used rye barrels. This beer is brewed with a variety of rye malts, and is partially fermented in Kentucky Rye Barrels then carefully blended. What emerges is a richly woody rye beer with the distinct flavors of sweet rye malts, and crisp rye whisky.

Taking it one step further are the mad geniuses at BrewDog in Scotland. They have created a series of whisky barrel aged Imperial Stouts called Paradox. They begin with their big 10% abv stout, and then age it for 6 months in Oak Barrels that once matured The Arran Malt, Smokehead, Springbank, Longrow, Bowmore, Macallan, and other fine whiskies. Each Paradox beer is sold individually and carries the distinct and unique flavors inherent of that specific whisky barrel in which it was aged. This is magical stuff. 

With heritage in mind, one of the world’s most infamous Distilleries has formed a thrilling bond with one of the greatest Scottish Breweries, Harviestoun. Highland Park’s barrels are used to create the highly sought after Harviestoun Ola Dubh (which is Gaelic for engine oil). Harviestoun ages its engine oil-like stout in a variety of Highland Park barrels and thus releases the Ola Dubh as Vintages 12, 16, 18, 25, 30 and 40. Each imparts the distinct flavors of that vintage of Highland Park Whisky – remarkable beer.

Probably my favorite example of oak aged beers is the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. It may have richer and creamier bourbon barrel flavors than that of any beer on this entire planet. The 13% Imperial Stout rests in Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels for 100 days creating a densely black beer with a lush and creamy dark mocha colored head. Flavors of charred oak, vanilla, caramel, chocolate, dried fruit and smoke radiate massively from this beer with silky and masterful poise. There is no end to what brewers can really create when oak finds its way into the equation.

To prove that point, I will introduce probably the most famous barrel aged beer, and also one of the world’s most expensive. The Samuel Adams Utopias commands prices upwards of $300 USD, is 27% abv, and is unlike any beer you have ever had. Its production process involves ageing the beer in various barrels such as bourbon, Madeira, and brandy, then blending them with older vintages dating back to 1994. Sound familiar? This is truly a world class beer and shows what brewers are capable of when let loose on some fine oak barrels.

Look beyond the stereotypical brands and flavors of beer, and you can discover something truly remarkable. Now is the most innovative, ingenious, and exhilarating time to enjoy real beer. Brewers all across the works are coloring outside the lines by brewing with unique ingredients, utilizing new and creative processes, and incorporating previously unthought-of techniques to create beer. The world of barrel aged beers is really a fabulous one to venture, and I highly recommend it. Cheers!

15 Responses to “Guest blog #8: Oak aged beers, more than meets the malt”

  1. DavidG says:

    An additional nice feature about oak-aged beers is their extended drinking window – the GI Bourbon County Stout actually states on the label that it can cellar for 5 years.
    Have you had any experience with New Holland’s Dragon Milk, and your thoughts?

    • Stephen Rich says:

      Hey David, I had the Dragon’s Milk a few years ago, but havent had an older vintage of it. I definitely think that the Bourbon County will stand up well in a cellar for many years; at least 5. just put 5 bottles of 2010’s vintage in mine and plan on opening 1 a year starting 2 or 3 years from now. So I’m very excited!

  2. Sol R says:

    I’ve had some really good oak aged beers – and yes, high on the list is Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. I’ve also had Harviestoun Ola Dubh and the Innis & Gunn (did NOT like the Innis & Gunn – the toffee was too forward and dominated the beer). There’s also Weyerbacher’s Insanity and Heresy – both really good oak aged beers. But while I agree that there are some fantastic experiments going on with wood barrel, including Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron, I think some of the brewers are drifting too far afield with the unique ingredients you’re touting. Dogfish Head’s latest releases list ingredients that belong in a cake more than in a beer. You can call me stuffy if you like, but if I want cocoa in my drink, I’ll order a cocktail. When I want a beer, I don’t want cocoa in it.

    • John Hansell says:

      I was just informed that Innis & Gunn will be releasing a rum cask-aged beer soon too.

    • Stephen Rich says:

      Innis & Gunn is releasing a Rum Cask Ale, it will be available in the Connoisseur’s Gift Pack that they release from Christmas with a bottle of the Original, a new Winter Beer, and a branded glass. This will be the 3rd Rum cask from Innis. In 2008 Innis released the very first Rum Cask aged in Pusser’s Navy Rum barrels – it was then available in the gift pack from Christmas 2009, and as mentioned will be back in 2010. It is delicious. Less toffee, more malt, more spice.

      In terms of creative ingredients Sol, I see what you are saying. But it is one of the reasons I love real beer! Because there are now over 1600 craft breweries in the US, and thousands more across the worls there are flavors of beer for everyone! Even just Dogfish brews both oakaged beers, beers with wild new ingredients, but then so many more beers brewed just with traditional ingredients. No holds barred!

  3. Barry Jay says:

    Wow….Goose Island Bourbon County Stout…you go John..Even I put down my Octal Hopped beer for the Goose Island. Simply deightful. Also the Utopias…fun to break out at a beer sampling. One day I poured a shot glass of Utopias for my borther in laws father in law. He took a sip and made a face “Coors is much better”. What a heathen.

  4. Greg says:

    Over the last 2 years or so, I’ve been slowly adding more distinct beers into my drinking experience. It started with Allagash and was all downhill from there. This was a great blog and really enjoyed reading it. Now I have to go shopping…..

    • Stephen Rich says:

      Thanks Greg! Allagash focuses most of their beers on exciting ingredients, but are also classically Belgian in style typically, and many are fermented with wild yeast strains that create tart flavors that don’t appeal to everyone. The beauty of real beer, is that there are thousands to enjoy!

  5. Barry Jay says:

    Well, on the way home from work, I stopped at a wonderful place in Brooklyn called BierfKraft. Bought a bottle of Ola Dubh, Paradox and a growler of Centennial IPA. John reminded me how good the brews are…will be sampling them around the campfire out back this coming Saturday night….

    • Sol R says:

      If you liked Bierkraft, try American Beer on Court Street.

      • Barry Jay says:

        Went to American Beer….different assortment for sure, but not as well stocked with the high end bottles. Did find a bottle of Dog Fish’s Miles Davis Bitches Brew, Sierra Nevada Sierra 30th Anniversary Black Barleywine Ale and Captain Lawrence’s Nor Easter. Looking forward to sharing with some friend’s that are home brewers. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. Gary Gillman says:

    I think oak storage complements some beers, especially big-bodied beers, often stouts or other dark ales. The oak tannins can blend in a pleasing way with hop resins and other flavours in the beer. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, gran-daddy of the style I believe, is terrific.

    I am not a fan of oak when it imparts a strong flavour to pale beers. Oak containers for beer were common in Britain and America until relatively recently, but they were re-used and sanitized continually and I wonder how much oak flavour got into the beers. Some 19th century commentary suggests brewers did not like a fresh oak flavour in the beer. However, I read on Ron Pattinson’s historical beer site that at least one London porter brewer felt that oak improved the quality of his porter. I think it’s a question of preference and also perhaps that dark beers benefit in particular from the effects.

    I like some of the Innis & Gunn line, and the rum cask beer sounds amazing.


  7. Peter says:

    I have tried numerous oak aged beers and haven’t liked them much. that said, it is entirely possible that the beer was improved with the oak.

    I expect that there is a lot of experimentation going on as it is probably hard to tell upfront the character that virgin, charred, first or subsequent fill spirit/wine aged barrels will have on beer. I hope the experimentation will continue and I’m sure there will be some real good results eventually.

  8. […] articles to potentially publish on his site… And mine is one of them! Thanks very much John! My article on Oak Aged beers went up on September the 8th on John’s site, and I am very proud and honored to be published […]

  9. Barry Jay says:

    I was just at a little gathering this weekend and one of the guests brought a vintage bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale (1995). 15 years of aging really did some magic with this bottle. Being a hop head, I was really impressed with it’s Sherry like flavor…in some ways, Utopias like. It was simply deightful. I have a few bottles of Quad and Insanity from Weyerbacher that have been in my basement since 2006. We’ll see where they wind up.

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