The Fine Taste Of Oak Barrel Aged Beer

Barrel aged beerIt is rare that I will pay $35 for one bottle of beer.  However, there is one incredible oak barrel aged beer I want to tell you about.  It is 2006 vintage Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien.  This unpasteurized, unfiltered, limited edition ale is brewed in Switzerland by Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes.  This superb beer has a bracing tart spicy flavor that has a nearly wooly complexity similar to a Belgian lambic.

The price is really the only drawback to this exquisite oak barrel aged beer.

So what makes  Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien such an unusual beer?  It is one of that expanding number of oak barrel aged beers, where the beer ages in oak barrels for a long period of time.  For whiskey and wine this may be fairly typical.  However, for beer it is rare.  Brewers of the oak barrel aged beer are in some ways reaching back into the future.

In centuries past, the only vessels for brewing and storing beer were barrels.  Most brewers try to eliminate any wood flavors from their oak barrel aged beer by scrubbing and soaking the wood in an attempt to make their barrels as neutral as they could.  Of course, in industrial times, aluminum and steel could be used by a brew with a lot less wear and effort than wood.

However, in the past ten years, brewers have started to take another look at barrels.  The brewers have been inspired by whiskey producers, winemakers and lambic brewers, who still use barrels.  These brewers view oak barrel as tools for making beer more interesting and complex and not as mere storage vessels.

Recently, our beer panel sampled 25 oak barrel aged beers.  Some were sweet and some were dry.  Some had a toasty malt flavor and others were black like stout.  Others were nearly golden and had a complex fruit flavor.  Most of the oak barrel aged beer did not have an obvious hops flavor.  The barrel aging process appears to have suppressed this characteristic.

Some of the oak barrel aged beer showed signs of the brewer encouraging the effects of various yeasts inside the barrel, producing intense sour flavors.  In other beers, the barrels were mainly used to expose the beer to small mounts of oxygen.  When this is carefully done it can add a nice sherry or toffee-like character to the oak barrel aged beer.  Another thing that some brewers do is use barrels that previously held something else, such as pinot noir, Port or Scotch to provide the beer with the trace elements.

Our favorite beer was the Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien.  It is a oak barrel aged beer that is aged in barrels used previously for grappa, rum, sauvignon, cabernet, Burgundy and other types of wines.  These flavors are not obvious, or maybe they are just very well integrated.

A majority of the oak barrel aged beer that we tasted were quite potent with a 10 percent or higher alcohol content.  However the beer we like the best weren’t unbalanced or overbearing.  The reason an oak barrel aged beer is so expensive is because of the labor cost and also storage.  These are hand made beers in small lots.  Even the barrels are expensive.

An oak barrel aged beer is definitely not meant for chugging.  These are specialized brews and go very well with fine food.  For cheeses and seafood, a tangy lambic-style beer goes very well.  A rich imperial stout-style beer is perfect with  chocolate.  In terms of the cost, you need to thin of an oak barrel aged beer like you would a fine bottle of wine to share.