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If you’re an avid beer drinker, you’ve probably noticed an influx of barrel-aged beers popping up on menus and shelves across the state. But this method of beer production isn’t anything new. The resurging trend is rumored to have started in the early ‘90s at Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., but the act of holding and transporting beer in vessels called barrels has been a part of beer making throughout history.
Semantics aside — what qualifies as a barrel, anyway? — breweries began intentionally aging beers in wooden barrels to extract specific taste properties in the early ‘90s, and the practice since created a unique facet of the craft beer industry that breaks away from traditional styles. More and more brewers across the U.S. have taken this concept and made it their own, and Michigan brewers are no exception.
“Unique is what people want,” said Aaron Hanson, co-owner and president of operations at Ellison Brewing Co. in Meridian Township. “Barrel aging allows us to create unique beers.”
Ellison, tucked away in an industrial park at 4903 Dawn Ave., is just one of the local breweries embracing the idea of aging its beers in wooden barrels. The goal is to capture the taste, aroma or essence of either what the wood (usually oak) has to offer or to capture the taste, aroma or essence of what the barrel formerly held. Many brewers use bourbon barrels for specific flavor profiles, but other brewers use wooden barrels that were originally used to age wine, sherry, port or other liquors.
The key to successfully pulling off the barrel-aging technique, according to Hanson, is a combination of patience, testing and science.
“There’s a lot of science behind barrel aging beers if you do it right,” said Hanson. “There’s so much that goes into it — some people think you can take any beer you have just lying around, throw it into some wooden barrels and get something awesome. That’s not the case at all.”
Hanson explained that he starts brewing his beer in a specific way in order to accentuate the barrel-aging process, creating a thick, rich beer before it ever hits the barrel.
After creating the beer to be aged, he then chooses the type of barrel he wants to use, depending on what type of flavor he’s looking to create. Hanson takes each barrel and notes what the previous occupant — bourbon, whiskey, port or whatever — was made from and what flavors come with that. From there, the beer is matched with the flavor profiles that are coming from each individual barrel.
“We want our barrels to be as fresh as possible,” Hanson said. “The older the barrel, the more dehydrated the wood is, meaning that there’s less flavor in the wood to be transferred to the beer.”
Hanson and his crew have created many different types of barrel-aged beers, ranging from sour beers, which are typically made with the barrel aging technique, to beers that take on whiskey or bourbon flavors. But Ellison isn’t the only brewery in the Lansing area that has begun to experiment with barrel aging. Over at EagleMonk Pub and Brewery, co-owner and brewer Dan Buonodono has done barrel aging in the past and currently has four barrel-aged beers on tap, mainly of the sour variety.
“We use wooden whiskey or bourbon barrels mostly,” Buonodono said. “I let them age until the sourness gets to the right point, and then we offload it into kegs and put it on tap.”
Lansing Brewing Co. in the Stadium District and Bad Brewing Co. in Mason have also been known to roll out some barrel-aged beers. And while Midtown Brewing Co. in downtown Lansing doesn’t brew its own barrel-aged beers, it is a good spot to find some great Michigan brews that were barrel-aged, such as Saugatuck Brewing Co.’s Barrel Aged 5 Quarter Porter.
Across the state, Bell’s Brewery and Brewery Vivant are popular brewers that are producing brews with an aged kick. And while they are aged in roughly the same way, the results are extremely diverse. Vivant’s Wizard Burial Ground, which is aged in Bourbon barrels, has a completely different flavor profile than its PlowHorse brew, which is aged with oak barrels. Bell’s’ Raspberry Wild Ones is another unique offering that is aged in oak foeders, large wooden barrels used for fermentation and aging, but it still maintains a fruity flavor for those who prefer their brews on the sweeter side.
Arcadia Ales, whose long-anticipated arrival in Lansing is coming soon, also partakes in the barrel-aging revolution, creating brews like the Shipwreck Porter, a Baltic-style porter with malt character and hoppy bitterness, or Battle Kriek, a blend of aged brews and Michigan cherries that creates a funky, fruity and woody flavor.
“Creating barrel aged beers is really a lot of experimenting,” said Hanson as he pointed out the tasting notes that he and his staff had made on the sides of their aging barrels. “But taking the science behind it, years of experience and lots of tasting, what we’re making here isn’t just by chance.”