Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Waste of Good Beer?

Since I started learning more about wine and spirits I've found oak a fascinating subject, and so I thought I'd attempt to do a bit more exploration of how it effects beer. It seems to be something of a divisive subject among beer enthusiasts judging by posts such as this one on Rob's beer quest, and Ghost Drinker's defence. If, as has been suggested, 'there is no such thing as a great barrel aged beer' then I'm going to have a go at finding one anyway.

Normal size Geordie bloke, whacking great big barrel,
still nowhere near 10,000 gallons though.
My initial thought is that, like most things, oak used well will contribute to the character of the beer. Judiciously used it should add complexity to rather than detract from the 'primary' flavours that come from the base ingredients. I'm not claiming to know anything about how beer works with oak, hence the exploration. However, from my wine and spirit studies and tastings I think I've got a fair idea of what flavours could possibly be imparted from an oak barrel, and I apologise if I have to dip into wine vocabulary and terms. I'm also going to try and find out how the barrels are used, to get away from a simple 'barrel aged' statement, which I think can be pretty meaningless - as I've mentioned before. The devil's in the detail - a beer like Dogfish's 'Red and White'* which has been matured in a 10,000 gallon oak tank is going to pick up relatively little (if any) flavour due to the ratio of liquid to surface area of wood - certainly compared to a beer matured in a smaller barrique sort of size (like the smaller ones in the photo.)

The beers I've got for this mini experiment (at the moment) are from Harviestoun, Innis and Gunn, Traquair and Tullibardine. Since I love Scottish beer in the first place I suppose the question is whether it will be ruined by the barrel? The plan is to taste the beers as I normally would but I'll try and decide what difference the barrel ageing (or in one case, fermenting) has made by way of a conclusion.

* Thanks to Phil for pointing this one out.

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