• Spring
      • video

        Finding the Flow from Kansai to Kochi

        Shikoku’s many mountains, valleys and proximity to the ocean has made it a hidden gem for rafting, kayaking and canyoning enthusiasts willing to take a step or two further from the Golden Route of Kyoto and Osaka.

        Solace and Giant Salamanders in Akiota

        Just beyond Hiroshima City is a tranquil outdoor destination home to some of Japan's last remaining oosanshouo, the elusive giant salamander.
        Kyoto Oni Trail Outdoor Japanvideo

        The Oni Trail: Hiking Coastal Kyoto

        The mystical oni is prevalent in Japanese children’s stories, usually as a way to scare kids straight. Adventure Travel Kyoto is shedding a new light on this folklore and developing a new hiking route in the countryside of Kyoto.
    • Summer
    • Autumn
      • Pow Bar Founder Megumi Scott

        Beyond the Brand: Pow Bar

        An interview with Megumi Scott, the founder of Niseko brand Pow Bar.
        Churamura Okinawa Sea Turtle Marine Conservation

        Churamura: Footprints in the Sand

        Churamura, an NPO in Okinawa, work to conserve marine life and protect endangered sea turtles in Japan's southernmost prefecture.

        Fall in Love with Kawazu

        Enjoy waterfall hikes and hot springs, beautiful beaches and delicious seafood in Kawazu on the western coast of Izu Peninsula.
    • Winter
    • Near Tokyo
    • Near Kyoto
      • video

        Finding the Flow from Kansai to Kochi

        Shikoku’s many mountains, valleys and proximity to the ocean has made it a hidden gem for rafting, kayaking and canyoning enthusiasts willing to take a step or two further from the Golden Route of Kyoto and Osaka.
    • All Regions
    • Article Map
    • Ocean and Beach
    • River and Lake
    • Mountain and Land
    • Sky
    • Snow and Ice
    • Travel
    • Food and Drinks
    • Races and Events

Wood-Aged Beers

If you are a casual fan of craft beer, you might be surprised to hear that many of the world’s top-rated beers are aged in wooden barrels. The beer industry largely phased out the use of wooden barrels in the early twentieth century with the advent of metal kegs, which could be more easily sanitized. Today barrels are more associated with wine, spirits, or even sake (which has also largely moved away from its wooden ‘roots’) than beer. 

But barrel-aging has become hugely popular in the craft world. In fact, as of December 2017, three of the top five—and five of the top ten—on BeerAdvocate.com are bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stouts. Why has this technique become so popular?

It is largely the same reason that wine, whiskey, rums and tequilas are aged in (primarily oak) barrels. Wood-aging infuses beer with a variety of compounds that add complexity to its flavor and mouthfeel. The nature and intensity of these compounds depend on a variety of factors, including the type of wood, its freshness, the size of the barrel, the length of contact and whether the wood was charred. For example, fresh oak can provide a spicy character and pronounced tannins whereas charred oak can provide a more vanilla—or coconut-like—character and more subtle tannins.

 A number of finished beers are being aged in barrels freshly emptied of spirits. These are typically strong beers with a solid malt presence, as the flavors and body of these beers will stand up better to the intense flavors of the spirits’ barrels. 

 The most popular style of these beers is the bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout, as the sweetness, spice, coconut, and vanilla character imparted by a bourbon barrel perfectly complements the roasted malt (coffee, dark chocolate) and fruity esters of the imperial stout. Even as the beers that pioneered the style like Goose Island Beer Company’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (14.1%, first brewed in 1992) and Founders Brewing Company’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout (11.8%, first brewed in 2003) are scaled up to international distribution, their winter release dates remain anticipated events on craft beer fan’s calendars.

While barrels that contained spirits will be fairly sterile, others will include microbes like bacteria or yeast. This is important for producing sour and funky beers inspired by those of Belgium (previously discussed in Beer Buzz, Summer 2015) as well as traditional British old ales, Baltic porters and other stock (aged) beers to which wild yeast contributes notes of earth and leather. 

One way North American brewers work with wood is by investing in large oak fermenters called foeders that were highly uncommon just a few years ago. While fresh yeast cultures are generally still added to each batch, the wood in these vessels will harbor souring bacteria and wild yeasts that will give each brewer’s beer the flavor of its “house culture.” 

Some breweries in wine-making regions are either fermenting or aging their beers in barrels previously used for wine fermentation. This technique was pioneered about twenty years ago by Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, in beers like Consecration (10%), a red ale aged in cabernet barrels with currants and Supplication (7%), a sour brown ale aged in pinot noir barrels with cherries. Some brewers are even racking fresh beer onto the leftover pomace (grape skins and pulp) in barrels after the wine has been bottled, which provides a variety of wild yeasts as well as ample vinous character. 

So far, barrel-aged beer remains fairly uncommon in Japan’s craft beer scene, although whiskey and sake barrels have been used to good effect by some local breweries. Kiuchi Brewing Company was one of the first brewers in Japan to work with wood, aging its Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale (7%) on Japanese cedar casks as a tribute to the sake industry and its Extra High (XH, 8%) in   barrels. Let’s hope for more innovative uses of wood-aging in Japan, more collaborations between Japanese breweries and distilleries, and more importation of examples of these styles!

[novo-map id=2 individual=”yes”]

Outdoor Japan logo tree


Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest posts