Rye Vs Bourbon Barrels For Aging Beer
The Popularity of Bourbon Barrel Aged Beer is More Than Marketing Hype, And Rye Barrel Aging May Be The Next Big Trend
Odds are these days that if a craft beer brewery isn’t already making a run of barrel-aged beer, they’re thinking about it. It’s a not-so-new cool thing for craft brews to do now thanks to the growing popularity of bourbon over the last decade or so. It’s gotten big enough that even Budweiser has jumped into the game, for better or worse.
It’s not exactly a golden goose trend, but it gets people talking and most of the time it makes some pretty great beers. There’s an enormous variety of barrel-aged beers out there thanks to also increased popularity of small-time craft breweries. People are experimenting with barrels that aged tequila, rum, wine, and even scotch. Then you get mad scientists like Goodwood who released a whiskey finished in a barrel they had used previously to make a bourbon barrel-aged stout.
In all that variety, used bourbon barrels still seem to be the most popular choice of barrel for beer, which makes sense. It has a subtlety of sweetness that’s easy to pair with dark beers, which is dominantly what craft breweries make. But you don’t see its ugly brother, rye whiskey, used nearly as often. Also understandable, because rye tends to make for a much more dramatic set of flavors that’s a little harder to negotiate with, but there’s still a lot of potential for rye whiskey barrels and beer. So we wanted to take closer look at bourbon and rye whiskey, talk about what flavors they can bring and some of the beers out there that seem to have barrel-aged successfully.
|Base grain||Flavors||Common beer pairings|
|Bourbon||Corn||Vanilla, caramel, maple, brown sugar, oak/buttiness.||Imperial stout, IPA, Scotch ale, Belgian|
|Rye Whiskey||Rye||Pepper, spiciness, earthiness, dry herbs.||Porter, Scottish ale, amber ale.|
Bourbon Barrel Flavors
The defining feature of bourbon is corn and oak. Legally the mash bill has to be at least 51% corn and aged in a fresh oak barrel in order to be called bourbon. Most distilleries make it with about 60-80% corn with varying amounts of rye and barley mixed in. So the flavor of corn is the most important thing, which is dominantly sweetness, and the flavors from the barrel, which can be vanilla, caramel or nuttiness, depending on the char level.
That doesn’t exactly mean it’s going to make beer sweeter, though. These are more like hints of flavor. Getting a hint of vanilla or caramel in a beer can make it seem sweeter, but it can also add dramatically to the booziness. Typically, breweries expect barrel aging to increase the abv percentage of the beer one or two percent.
This is why most a lot of breweries put their darker beers in Bourbon barrels. Stouts and IPAs stand to gain the most complexity from oak flavors and sweet aromatics. And it seems like an obvious pairing when you have a stout with a strong chocolate flavor and a bourbon with a strong caramel flavor. You’ll also see some Belgian beers aged in bourbon barrels, which makes sense if you want to highlight caramel and vanilla flavors.
Examples of Bourbon Barrel-Aged Beers
Something like the Sierra Nevada Trip in the Woods is a dramatic example of just how much body and sweetness a bourbon barrel can add to a scotch ale. The sweetness comes through strong in this beer, and the body itself is thick enough that this is almost like a syrup, but the scotch ale tempers the flavor with a bit of chocolatey bitterness so this becomes a pretty nice sipping beer for the winter, once you get used to it. That’s similar (if a bit heavier) to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, which tries to get some of the smokiness of the barrel char to play with the chocolate tones of the stout with a sort of backdrop of sweetness from the bourbon and other tannin flavours.
Lighter beers aged in barrels are few and far between, but if you’re curious about that end of the spectrum, Budweiser’s Copper Lager is one of the few popular examples of a lager aged in bourbon barrels. People tend to get split on whether this beer is actually good or not, but it can serve as a sort of benchmark for carefully mixing in oak and bourbon flavors into something while keeping a low abv. The flavors aren’t strong. They don’t tend to come out in the aroma, but hints of vanilla and bourbon do come into the back of the throat after the initial sweetness of the lager fades. It’s the kind of thing that shows you can use barrel aging to layer the flavors of your beer. It doesn’t always have to be about mixing dark palettes or fighting against the bitterness of an IPA.
Rye Barrel Flavors
This is where it can really start to make things taste like your drinking bread if you’re not careful, which is probably why you don’t see as many beers aged in rye barrels. Rye has a much stronger, some might say harsher, flavor. For reference, consider the difference between eating corn bread and rye bread. They’re basically polar opposites where bread is concerned.
Along with the same oak flavors you get with the bourbon (nuttiness, vanilla, caramel, etc.) you’re getting a lot of peppery and earthy tones that can border on bitter.
There are some breweries making some really fascinating stuff with rye whiskey barrels, either by carefully tempering the taste of the rye to compliment their beer, or going completely the opposite direction and catering to the people who prefer the sharp, spicy taste of rye whiskey in the first place.
Again, it’s usually paired with darker beers, but in this case it’s not to bring in a sweeter palette; it usually mixes in to create a mix of earthy flavors, not that different from herb-heavy breads.
Examples of Rye Whiskey Barrel-Aged Beers
Great Divide actually made a pretty good example of what rye can do with a lager. They were really careful with their use of rye here, because the danger of those rye flavors to overpowering lighter beers is even more acute than with bourbon, and this lager in particular has a fairly low abv. They seem to have gotten the timing down just right on the aging to get the spiciness from rye without losing the crispness of the lager itself, though.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Boulevard Brewing’s Rye on Rye. Not only did they put a dark beer in a rye barrel, they doubled down and finished it in a second rye barrel. This is great for anyone who likes rye whiskey in the first place. They aimed to highlight those rye flavors with the beer rather their beer with the whiskey, if that makes sense. The result is a very strong imperial stout that borders on a bread tasting.
For a dialed back, but highly calculated version of that you could look at the Abraxa special release from Perennial Beer. The flavor of this got pretty intense as well after a year of aging, but they added cinnamon sticks, cacao nibs, vanilla beans, ancho chiles to the mix so this came out more like a high quality chocolate than a bread.
The other danger of aging with a rye barrel is actually covering up the rye whiskey flavors. Stouts and IPAs are probably the most likely to overpower rye, like with Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss. Not a bad tasting beer, but it borders more on a boozy stout than a rye barrel-aged stout, because the beer itself is incredibly strong. You need to have a pretty discerning taste to pick up the best of what the barrel is bringing to it.
Tips on Getting Good Bourbon and Rye Barrels
If any of this has inspired you to make your own barrel-aged formula, you have one little hurdle to clear before you can start experimenting: actually getting the barrel. This can be hard sometimes unless you have a direct relationship with a distillery or have gotten friendly with a liquor retailer who does. If you’re coming into this whole scene fresh, we obviously encourage you to talk to us, because barrels are kind of our thing.
In the meantime, here are just a couple things to consider before diving in.
Get Them Fresh
It’s always better to get a spirit barrel wet, even if you end up rinsing most of the spirit out before aging. It’s better to have flavors to whittle away than wish you had more flavor to work with. A whiskey barrel will still be usable up to a few weeks after it’s been emptied (if it’s been conditioned properly), but you’re losing out on more spirit flavor every day you don’t refill the barrels with your own stuff.
Plan Ahead on Acquiring Barrels
Depending on the time of year and a million other things, bourbon and rye barrels (and really any kind of barrel) can be hard to come by or already spoken for by someone else. If you’re trying to get barrels at the last minute, you could end up with a vat full of beer just sitting around doing nothing for months.
Or on the other side, if you’re beer isn’t completely finished when you chance upon some barrels, you start losing flavors while your rush to get everything ready.
Talk to barrel brokers (like us, not to hint or anything) about what they have in stock, or what they will have in stock soon so you can get an idea of when you need to have your beer ready for the barrels. Generally if you’re close enough to them and they’re close enough to the barrel source, you can get freshly dumped barrels pretty quickly, but you need to make sure you have your brew ready to pour into the barrels so they aren’t just sitting around.
Make Sure you Know What Kind of Rye Whiskey Barrel You’re Getting
The term “rye whiskey” isn’t as tightly regulated as bourbon. American Rye whiskey has a set of pretty strict rules that’s comparable to bourbon (mash bill has to be at least 51% rye, aged in a fresh barrel, etc.), but Canadian rye whiskey is a completely different thing. They’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want up there and still call it “rye whiskey” so long as it, and I’m paraphrasing their law a little here, “tastes like Canadian whiskey.”
There are plenty of high rye Canadian whiskies out there, just be aware of what you’re getting. If you’re not getting the barrels directly from a distillery, your barrel broker should be able to tell you what was aged in it and for how long so you can gauge what kind of flavors and grains you’ll be dealing with.