Tap Lines: ‘Clean’ Wood-Aged Beer Styles Give a New Twist to Old Practice

Bissell Brothers has barrel-aged its flagship IPA, Substance. Photo courtesy of Bissell Brothers Brewing

Hogshead, puncheon, foeder, tun, rundlet, firkin. These are all names for different sizes of casks historically used in brewing. Just say them out loud: a series of awesome words from a murderer. And don’t forget the butt (a.k.a. the imperial butt), which some claim is the source of this well-known measure of sufficient quantity, the “buttload” (an etymology which is not confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary, alas).

Maine drinkers won’t come across many “firkin aged” beers, but they will certainly come across beers that have spent time in wood ovens, puncheons, and barrels.

Cherry Lime Times is a wood-aged sour from Allagash Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Co.

Allagash’s all-new Cherry Lime Times – an ode to summery cherry-lime slushies – is a beautifully made and enjoyable sour that spent four months, with cherries grown in Maine, in a thunderbolt (Allagash goes with the spelling French; “foeder” is Dutch). The fresh lime zest was added late. Sparkling and light, this one is tangy and sour, but not harsh like many sour beers can be. It could be the wood that speaks, although the wood often speaks in many voices – and at times unpredictable. The porosity of the barrels helps hide all kinds of microorganisms that can shape the taste of a beer, adding fruitiness, depth and complexity to Belgian-style ales.

Just a century ago, most draft beers would have been delivered in heavy oak barrels. But that doesn’t mean these beers featured the funk. Historical evidence suggests that since the early 19th century brewers were good enough to neutralize the flavors of wood (and resident microbes) by steeping it in boiling water or hydrochloric acid. In Germany and the United States, the barrels have been pitch-lined, both to tighten up the seal and to minimize woody flavors. Eventually, wooden containers were replaced with stainless steel containers.

More recently, wood has become a useful (if not vital) tool for craft brewers, who view it not as a neutral container, but as an active contributor to beer aroma and taste. But not all woods are the same. Different ships have different histories, including how they were built and what they’ve kept in the past.

Custom foeders can be modified to amplify or decrease the woody profile imparted to the beer, which can be expressed through a range of flavors including vanilla, coconut, almond, burnt sugar and smoke. Bourbon casks can provide many of these aromas and flavors. Wine barrels can add a range of fruity notes. Wood can round off the sharper edges of a beer, giving it a smoother body and more depth.

The size of the container also matters: the smaller it is, the more contact the beer has with the wood and the oxygen which, even in small quantities, penetrates from the outside. So the bigger the ship, the more slowly and regularly the beer ages (but it also means longer production times). Although vessel sizes vary, a puncheon is generally about three times the size of a barrel, and foeders can range from five to 250 barrels (a more standard size being around 30 barrels).

In his influential book, “Tasting Beer,” Randy Mosher explicitly states, “Barrel aging is not the best treatment for a pilsner; strong and dark is the rule. But like many in the craft beer world, things have changed (and quite quickly – Mosher’s book was published in 2009). As some brewers widened their offerings, purchasing wooden containers for mixed fermentation beers, they also began to experiment with “clean” beers on wood. (A “clean” beer is one in which the yeast esters, which can add fruit or funky character to the beer, are minimal or even non-existent. Lagers are clean. Lagers are relatively clean, by comparison. to beers such as farm beers or hefeweizens.)

Many emphasize Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing as one of the initiators of this recent trend. After buying food to make mixed-fermentation beers, they decided to pass pilsner in there out of curiosity. The result was a beer with “wonderful subtlety,” according to the brewer. “We get that toasted marshmallow note out of it, and it just rounds the edges of the Pilsner.” My first encounter with a clean beer on wood was Threes’ Short Fuse, a fermented smoked foeder: a beer so breathtaking that the memory of the moment is etched in my brain.

Maine breweries recently experimented with clean beer on wood. Last summer, Goodfire debuted Now Here Nowhere, before refining it earlier this year. This is a pilsner fermented and aged for three months in a 600 liter oak barrel that previously contained Cabernet Sauvignon. It is then returned to stainless steel vats, where it is mixed with fresh fermenting lager beer, producing natural carbonation (a traditional process known as “krausening”). Aromas of woody vanilla and berry mingle with the floral hops of a pilsner, with a slightly smoother mouthfeel that retains the style’s signature crunchy finish.

Belleflower recently released Lost Leaf Oak, a pale Czech-style lager aged in neutral wine barrels. There is a verdant oakiness in the initial approach, but as the beer warms up it is more and more reminiscent of an oaky Chardonnay. A hesperidic luminosity mingles with the malt in the background.

Bissell Brothers have used their foeders extensively to make mixed fermentation beers and seasons at their Milo site. Their first foeder-aged ‘clean’ beer has just debuted – using their flagship IPA, Substance. The orange candy aromas replace the humidity of the regular version; as it warms up in the glass, woody notes emerge. Where the Standard Substance is loud and warm, bristling with bitter citrus and earthy garlic-onion, the foeder version is calm and cool, with “hard to define sweetness,” as brewer Noah Bissell puts it. It’s a fascinating illustration of how even a little time spent in the woods transforms a beer.

Contemporary brewers must heed the demands of impatient drinkers clamoring for the next thing, which often results in the juice of new beers with bolder flavors and original ingredients. But redefining brewing traditions in new ways – like reintroducing wood-specific beers – is a welcome mode of innovation.

Ben Lisle is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries of East Bayside in Portland, where he writes on cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Join him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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