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Barrel Ageing: An Almost Debate

Barrel Ageing. There’s a two word conundrum that’s likely to create any pub chat debate within seconds. What do you think of it? Is there any point? What are your favourite examples? Are the prices ridiculous?

As a more recent addition to the beer blogging universe I know that there are some debates that will have become tired and been repeated long before I ever began. My two cents on such a subject are relatively worthless now. But, hey, this is my blog and these are my opinions so I’ll pretty much do as I please.

What brought me to write my judgements on Barrel Ageing was the increase in effected beers I’ve had over the last month or two. Summer Wine’s Kopikat Clynelish and Caol Ila proved to be, as I tweeted at the time, the best examples of Barrel ageing I’ve had to this day. The barrel aged 77 Lager at BrewDog Manchester left me pondering the sheer novelty side of the process. Whilst another BrewDog beer, Bitch Please, a collaboration with Three Floyds, showed how beers released originally as barrel aged can live alone.  

So that all seems pretty positive to me. And I happen to have a few special editions shoved in my stash so it’s time to really decide on this strange development of beer malarkey. To aid me with my opinions I’ve brought the most prolific “barrel agers” in the business; Mikkeller. Basically, the delectable Danish chaps will put any of their beers in an old alcohol barrel if it goes unattended for long enough. Plus they make some terrific stand-alone beers that they insist on using as Aged experimentation. Therefore, they seem the best bet for critical analysis. So I’ve brought From To Via 2011 barrel conditioned in Bourbon and Big Worse Barley Wine Red Wine Edition.

Let’s start with the Fra To Vil (From To Via) which is a big Imperial Porter and one I have been lucky enough to try on cask before. I remember enjoying it, but perhaps not as much as similar varieties. Still, putting Imperial Stouts/Porters in Whiskey/Bourbon barrels is almost a necessity for every brewery at present, so surely this will be brilliant. Thick and cloudy with little head, these murky brown waters ooze liquorice and coffee initially, yet there’s an odd sickliness to the scent that isn’t pleasant. To taste, it’s initially how I remember this originally on keg. A standard Impy with huge roasted malts, chocolate and coffee that’s almost too sweet at first. Then it’s suddenly sour. It’s hugely carbonated and oddly the first drink that came to mind was Fruli, with all it’s heavy sweet carbonation. I’m not getting any bourbon at all. I’m just getting a decent evening’s supper taken away by a strange sour mash. Disappointing.

In a completely different direction I’ll try Mikkeller’s Big Worse, which is regularly a big 12% barley wine. I love my barley wines and the idea of putting them into red wine barrels may just well be inspired. But then I’m apprehensive about how those caramel malts will mix with the sickly fruitiness. Let’s discover. It’s a clear blackcurrant juice pouring with no head but a fair bit of “fizziness.” The smell is a complicated mixed bag. Oak, sour berries, toffee fudge, leather and sawdust. The taste is just as complex. You can taste the original with spiced oranges and that beautiful caramel, but the wine is also apparent; that oakiness and red berry flavour from the nose is definitely there. But again there’s a lot of carbonation. The whole content starts to mutate into Rosé wine. This is as far removed from beer as I can remember beer being. I am enjoying it, but more for the experience, especially knowing that this doesn’t improve regular Big Worse.

Maybe these were two of the weaker examples, (or maybe Mikkeller don’t do it as well as some others.) Either way it proves that, whilst experimenting is all good fun, if you are going to charge huge amounts for your “experiments” put some thought into what ‘ager’ you use. Now I’ve drunk the beers, I’ve decided I don’t actually want to debate the original points. The whole critical analysis just seems a little pointless. As I said, it’s a discussion that has raged on for some period and will continue to so. Of course some will work better than others, but that’s the same for ALL beer. Personally, I find it just as rewarding to experiment with “bottle-aged” beers. Unfortunately, I may need to stash them somewhere far away from me so they remain unopened long enough for this to work. Also, I've used "air-quotes" far too much in this post, instantly making all content written void. Cheers!


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