The Wooden Age: An Era of Barrel Aged Beer in Minnesota

Beer aging in Buffalo Trace Barrels // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Beer aging in Buffalo Trace Barrels // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Barrel aged beer is a big deal in the world of craft beer these days. It’s also unpredictable, time-consuming to make, and getting more expensive as it grows in popularity. In 2001 Town Hall’s Czar Jack Imperial Stout, now a staple in their annual Barrel Aged Week, won a gold medal at the illustrious Great American Beer Festival before there was even a category for “Wood and Barrel Aged Beers.” Since that time demand and consumer appreciation of the technique have reshaped the industry.

February 16–21 marks the return of the annual Barrel Aged Week at Town Hall, and head brewer Mike Hoops has a mixture of old favorites like Manhattan Reserve, Czar Jack, and Twisted Trace, as well as new inventions to introduce to barrel aged beer fans over the course of those six days.

“We introduce some new beers every year,” says Hoops. “If they are a hit, they may return.” This year, a Belgian Bruin aged in a Woodford Reserve barrel and an imperial Belgian Wit and a Baltic Porter both aged in red wine barrels are among the four new offerings that will premiere.

While these new releases are exciting, the old standbys are still the draw for the throng of customers forming lines in advance of their annual growler pre-sale where they hope to get the chance to pre-purchase the limited edition beers in limited take-home form before they sell out. The fanatic environment surrounding pre-sale is indicative of the market change.

Town Hall Brewery Head Brewer Mike Hoops discusses barrel aging // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Town Hall Brewery Head Brewer Mike Hoops discusses barrel aging // Photo by Aaron Davidson

“The way beer consumers have changed since 2000 is incredible,” Hoops observes. “It very much mirrors the challenges we faced opening a brewery in Minnesota in 1997 relative to the landscape today.” Early Minnesota breweries like Town Hall witnessed a polar shift between the days of introducing customers to this new “craft beer” and today’s frenzied crowds of craft beer aficionados.

Much of the success of the barrel aging program, Hoops feels, is a direct result of Town Hall’s relationships with their barrel sources. While they continue to try barrels from new distilleries and spirits, the brewery has developed personal relationships with distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee, maintained through annual trips. Those relationships not only make securing barrels easier, they are educational.

“A lot of the knowledge we’ve gained,” Hoops admits, “came from the distillers. These companies have been barrel aging for generations.” The distillery may be aging a different beverage, but the truths of wood-conditioning are applicable across the board. “It’s these long-term relationships that protect us somewhat from feeling the negative effects of the explosive growth in demand for used whiskey barrels,” he adds.

As the brewery boom continues, more producers want to barrel age their beer and demand for barrels has skyrocketed. “I purchased the first barrel in 2001 from Tom Griffin, now he is Griffin Barrel,” says John Moore of nearby Barley John’s. “He cold-called me and talked me into buying one bourbon barrel. I think it was his last one and was trying not to take it back to Wisconsin with him; thus Dark Knight [one of Barley’s John’s most popular beers], was born.” Cold-calls and even free barrels were an option in those early days. “That lasted about four to five years,” Moore recalls, but it is more difficult now to even find barrels to purchase. “It’s supply and demand.”

Dangerous Man's new barrel aged Imperial Hemp Ale // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Dangerous Man’s new barrel aged Imperial Hemp Ale // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Sourcing small quantities is still achievable for smaller breweries like Barley’s John’s Brew Pub or Dangerous Man Brewing—who just started their own program—but larger producers are finding it more cost prohibitive. HammerHeart Brewing, who estimate that 15% of their 2014 production was in barreled beer, spent around $135 per 53-gallon barrel upon opening in 2013. That price is now over $180, with different pricing for the craft distillery 30-gallon barrels also starting to hit the market. “Now availability comes in waves,” says co-owner Nathaniel Chapman, “and we buy barrels even before we have a beer in mind for it.”

Matters are further complicated, he says, by a shortage in the American Oak industry that supplies producers of virgin barrels, which are first used by distilleries before moving down the line to breweries. The shortage appears to be a smaller concern, and looking forward, Chapman adds, “I am hoping that the spirit boom helps offset the increased numbers of brewers barrel aging beer.”

Until there are no more barrels to use, brewers will continue to age big beers and, increasingly, sours. Indeed Brewing has already barrel aged select beers for taproom offerings, but they have recently expanded into aging sour and wild beers such as Wooden Soul, a saison with Brettanomyces. The small batch nature of barrel aging creates unique offerings from the kumquats used in Town Hall’s Project 3106 to The Herkimer’s Black Perle, a black ale aged in rye barrels that have also held Turkey Hill Apiary honey, which will soon premier at Winterfest.

Beginning Monday, February 16, Town Hall Brewery at 7 Corners will release the following beers for Barrel Aged Week:

UPDATE (Feb. 16, 12:00pm):

Mon, Feb 16 at 5pm: Manhattan Reserve
Belgian Grand Cru aged on tart cherries in a Woodford Reserve barrel.
A cherry dominant Grand Cru with honey undernotes. “Our version of the cocktail,” says headbrewer Mike Hoops.

Tue, Feb 17 at 5pm: Foolish Angel (New this year!)
Belgian Quad in an Angel’s Envy barrel.

Wed, Feb 18 at 5pm: Buffalo Bock (GABF Bronze 2014)
Weizenbock in a Buffalo Trace barrel.

Thu, Feb 19 at 5pm: Twisted Trace
Twisted Reality Barleywine in a Buffalo Trace barrel.
A hopped barleywine with strong caramel and toffee notes, before a boozy finish.

Fri, Feb 20 at 5pm: Project 3106
Double American Brown Ale with kumquats and chocolate in a Buffalo Trace barrel.
A brown ale with brown sugar, orange, and vanilla, brewed with an American yeast. The barrel was first used by Buffalo Trace on 03/01/06.

Sat, Feb 21 at 11am: Czar Jack (GABF Gold 2001)
Ol’ Jack Frost Imperial Stout in a Jack Daniels barrel.

Sat, Feb 21 at 3pm: THREE NEW BEERS!
Brown Label—A Belgian Bruin with maple syrup in a Woodford Reserve barrel.
Aged in syrup made by Hoops, this deep and rich beer has a coffee bitterness offset with a subtle maple sweetness.

The Duke of Wallonia—An Imperial Belgian Wit in a French oak red wine barrel.
A peppery spiced aroma, with a citrus and coriander flavor and a very dry finish. A very clean and distinct beer.

Le Baltique—A Baltic Porter in a French oak red wine barrel

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