The tradition of barrel aging is having a serious moment right now. Barrel aging has long been associated with rum, whiskey, and wine, yet it seems like these days they are putting any type of liquid into barrels, including hot sauce, maple syrup, gin, and tequila. However, one of the fastest growing trends is that of barrel-aged beers. And while barrel aging in California has typically been synonymous with wine, a number of California breweries are getting in on the action.
And in part it’s trendy and simply cool to say that something is barrel-aged. Sure, you could age your beer with wood chips but barrel aging sounds much cooler, right? But as trendy as barrel aging is, the effects of it are undeniable. Compare an unaged, 4-year, 7-year, and 12-year whiskey to one another and the differences are going to be stark.
The same can be said for aged beers, where the caramelized and vanilla flavors from the charred wood enhance the flavor profile. However, many times the result is a bit overpowering (and boozy) and not exactly the type of beer I want to be drinking on the beach on a warm summer day in Southern California. Nonetheless, some of California’s best breweries have produced some great barrel-aged beer options. Today I recommend a few you should try.
Stone Brewing Company, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard Ale. It’s no surprise that Stone Brewing Company would make the list since it’s one of the largest craft breweries in America (and the largest in Southern California), known for their flagship, Stone Pale Ale, and having won numerous awards. Just months ago, in October, they released a barrel-aged beer in their Bastard series, which is billed as their edgier line of beers. And the Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard Ale is edgy, clocking at 7.8% and feels warm going down. If you like your beer with a little oak to it, then you’ll certainly get it here.
Smog City Brewery, Goldie. October must be the month of barrel-aged beer releases, since it marked the first barrel-aged beer release from Smog City Brewery, located on the outskirts of Los Angeles in Torrance. The first, Goldie, is in the Belgian strong pale ale style, one of my favorite styles of beers (from my time traveling around Belgium), and packing a punch like many Belgian ales with a 10.5% ABV. Though producing the typical hints of vanilla and oak, it also features some unique tropical flavors, like coconut. Smog City has other barrel-aged beers, too, such as Quercus Circus, aged 19 months in Viognier, Chardonnay, and Zinfindel barrels.
Eagle Rock Brewery, Equinox Barrel Aged Blond Sour. This barrel-aged beer comes from one of my favorite breweries in Los Angeles, Eagle Rock. It’s one of my favorites in part because it’s so local and offbeat (I’ve missed the turnoff multiple times), but also because they make damn fine beer. Their barrel-aged blond, though a sour, finds a balance of sweet, tart, and bitter. This balance, the hints of citrus, and a lower ABV (6%) make it feel a bit more approachable.
AleSmith, Bourbon Barrel Aged Speedway Stout. San Diego’s AleSmith knows a thing or two about barrel aging since they’ve been doing it for a decade. And this is stout, pitch-black in color, featuring locally-roasted coffee and packing a 12% ABV punch. This is not for the faint of heart. However, it’s surprisingly approachable and easy to drink, though you won’t catch me drinking any more than one of these in a given evening.
Ballast Point Brewing, Piper Down Scottish Ale. Ballast Point in San Diego is one of my favorite drinking establishments in America. They have a home brew mart, they have taprooms, they do growler fills, and they make their own spirits. What else can be asked of it? I like their Piper Down since it’s aged in barrels of my favorite spirit, bourbon, and brewed in one of my favorite styles, Scottish ale. It’s malty, it’s rich, it’s delicious. However, like most of the barrel-aged beers, it’s available exclusively on draft.
Hangar 24, Pugachev’s Cobra. Hangar 24 has so many different beers that I’ve lost count. But what’s unique about many of their barrel-aged beers is that they fall under the Barrel Roll Membership Club, which is a year-long membership with exclusive access to some of their more creative beers, such as Pugachev’s Cobra, an imperial stout and one of their most highly-rated beers, having won multiple awards. But this is no guzzler, but rather a sipper, since it’s a dark, rich beer that has 18.9% ABV. 18.9%!
North Coast, Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin. This barrel-aged beer comes from another one of my favorite breweries, North Coast, featuring one of my favorite beers, Old Rasputin. On its own, Old Rasputin is a great Russian imperial stout. However, each year they do a special batch in bourbon barrels that adds a more complex flavor profile. What you get then with the Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin is a warming, creamy stout, great this time of year.
Firestone, Agrestic. Firestone is yet another brewery that puts out a substantial number of beers. Their 805 Blonde is one of my favorite summertime beers. But like some of the other breweries listed here, they have do a special release of some of their stronger barrel-aged beers called the Barrelworks Vintage Series. Many of these are limited and only available on draft, but one of the bottled brews includes Agrestic, an American red ale. Its maturation process is unique, going through both American and French oak barrels, producing a citrusy sour beer.
The Lost Abbey, Angel’s Share. The Lost Abbey again resonates with me because of their focus on Belgian-style beers. They have a number of barrel-aged beers, the standout for me being the Angel’s Share, which I like in part because of the name, which refers to the small portion of alcohol that’s lost to evaporation in barrels. Of the strong ale variety, Angel’s Share brews using quite a bit of caramel malt to further bring out those qualities of the oak from bourbon and brandy bottles. With a 12.5% ABV, it’s aged for a year before being bottled and released.
Russian River Brewing Company, Temptation. Barrel aging their first beer in 1999, Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma was aging beers long before many others. That same beer, Temptation, is one of numerous barrel-aged beers that they release annually. I gravitate toward Temptation because it reminds me of the medium-bodied blonde ales from Belgium, which is the style of brewing that has inspired most of Russian River Brewing Company. Temptation is a sour beer, largely because the yeast that is used (like many Belgian beers), and aged 9 to 15 months in Chardonnay barrels, which give it oak characteristics.