For hundreds of years, wood was the primary vessel for storing and transporting beer which would naturally impart wood flavors into beer. Barrels would be very costly and therefore reused time and time again with the wood flavors becoming less and less apparent. Long transportation of beer across the oceans even led to brewers increasing their usage of hops to add preservative qualities to the beer to avoid spoilage or so the story goes for the history of IPAs. Other styles of beer traditionally were left to the whims of cellars and natural wild yeasts and bacteria that resided in the breweries such as English old ales and Belgian lambics where the “spoilage” characteristics are sought after. Over the last 100 years, metal kegs have replaced wood and science that led to the isolation of yeast and bacteria strains has led to cleaner fermentation profiles. However, many craft breweries still use the wood-aging process to add nuance to beer.
Modern American brewers typically do not use wood as serving vessels as they did in the past rather they are used for aging beer. During the aging process, beer picks up oak flavors which differ depending on the level of char from the cooperage, flavors of the previous contents such as wine, and unique flavors due to the maturation of the beer itself. Aging for under 6 months will offer a slightly lighter taste while many styles of beer that are aged for a year or more will carry deeper flavors. Not all styles benefit from this process such as lagers which are meant to be consumed in a shorter period of time. In higher alcohol and malt-forward beers, the maturation process can change or round-out many of the flavors creating an invariably new beer than what would have been tasted upon entering the wooden vessel. Rich bread-flavors can change into nutty, toffee, and sherry-like qualities. Complex licorice notes can from from beers with roasts such as imperial stouts. In styles such as farmhouse ales (saisons), mixed fermentation beer, or lambics benefit from long-term aging as the various yeast and bacteria used will break down components of the beer over time into more complex flavors.
Locally, Woodland Farm Brewery, now in its 4th year of operations, has had a strong focus on their barrel-aging program since their inception utilizing used barrels from distilleries, wineries, and barrels from Adirondack Barrel Cooperage in Remsen. Their collection of spirits barrels from various distilleries includes NYS bourbon, NYS rye whiskey, NYS gin, Kentucky Bourbon, apple brandy, and peach brandy. As their barrel collection has grown, they have been able to focus on long-term aging and are now producing barrel-aged beer with no less than 12 months in barrels and in many cases 2-3 years. While space in a brewery can be tight, Woodland finds the real estate for barrels to be worth it for the process of producing high quality beer.
In 2018,Woodland was recognized at Tap New York Craft Beer and Food Festival where they received a gold medal for Oak Woden, an English old ale aged 15 months in an oak barrel from Adirondack Barrel Cooperage. Most recently, Woodland earned a bronze medal in the US Open Beer Competition which received over 7,000 entries in 130 categories. Their Rye Batch 3 received a medal in the barrel-aged Strong Scotch Ale category. They also won a silver medal in the same competition for another beer, Busier Than Hell. Rye Batch 3 was this year’s anniversary beer released in January after spending 12 months in a Rye Whiskey barrel from Black Button Distilling, Rochester. The very first beer brewed at the facility was a Scotch Ale named Batch 1 and in honor of that special brew a new variation is brewed every fall with portions of it aged in barrels to be released for the next anniversary. Currently, Batch 4 sits in used NYS bourbon, rye whiskey, and red wine barrels awaiting next January’s celebration. They have set aside several cases of Rye Batch 3 in the Woodland cellar with the intention of keeping them for a few more years to mature further, however, a few will find their way into the taproom this summer to celebrate the medal.
As far as Oak Woden is concerned, this Saturday Woodland is releasing a limited amount of bottles and draft of Frige. This one has been a few years in the making and it’s one that the brewer is especially excited about! Woden spent time in oak barrels and Kentucky Bourbon barrels and Frige is that same base beer that had rested in used bourbon barrels from Black Button Distilling for 30 months and inoculated with a culture of captured mircoflora. Historically, old ales, such as Woden, would have been introduced to wild yeast and bacteria in the cellars of breweries where the malt forward complexity would be met with some braced funky dryness and a touch of acidity. Frige is such a beer with complex malt, raisin, dark caramel toffee, and sherry. The wild capture yeast and bacteria were harvested from a spontaneously fermented beer brewed in the fall of 2016 where the wort (beer that has not had yeast pitched) was left to sit overnight in the taproom and let to ferment with the yeast and bacteria from the air and environment. This beer will be bottled later this summer.
On August 3 as an experiment in maturation of beer, Woodland will also be re-releasing a couple beers from their cellar collection that were there very first barrel-aged beers bottled in August of 2016. Oak LB Lives is an English style barleywine and Oak No Treason is a traditional German-style Adambier. A limited amount of bottles will be available once again and on draft. Do not miss this if you want to see what three years of further aging a beer will do a beer.