Rick Reed, owner of Cricket Hill Brewery in Fairfield tried a little experiment five years ago.
He plunked down $100 for an empty Jack Daniel’s barrel and filled it with his American amber ale.
The cask sat in a corner for four months, as the flavors of charred oak and aged whiskey seeped into the beer. At the end of the aging period, Reed was pleasantly surprised. "What came out of that barrel was unbelievable," he said.
The next year he bought a dozen barrels, and these limited-edition brews quickly sold out. This August, he plans to age 50 barrels of porter, a dark beer that is well-suited to acquire the casks’ notes of wood, spice and vanilla.
The traditional process of aging beer in whiskey or wine barrels is making a major comeback. When stored in casks for a few weeks, or even many years, these aged brews acquire complex flavors like fine wines do.
"It’s getting to the point where the art of making beer has surpassed a lot of wine and spirits," said Vito Forte, owner of Copper Mine Pub in North Arlington. "Whatever brewers can get their hands on – used wine and bourbon barrels – they want to blend and experiment. It’s just the flexibility and freedom that beer gives you."
Os Cruz, of the online guide New Jersey Craft Beer, said barrel-aging kicks a beer’s flavor up a notch. "The infusion of taste that these barrels leave behind, lends to a pretty new flavor. Creativity is a big part of it," said Cruz.
Barrel-aging is just one technique used by a fast-growing number of microbrewers. Sales of craft beers increased by 15 percent from 2010 to 2011 – a jump of 1.3 million barrels – according to the Brewers Association, a national network of small brewers.
By law, bourbon barrels have to be made of white oak and charred on the inside; bourbon distilleries can use the barrels only once. (The same goes for Tennessee whiskey such as Jack Daniel’s, which, from a legal standpoint, is bourbon made in Tennessee.) After bourbon has spent between four and 12 years in them, these containers get re-purposed to age a variety of products, from scotch and rum to Tabasco sauce and cigars.
Darker beers like porters and stouts age best, said Reed. He also had success aging a malty barleywine. "I don’t enter these beers in contests, but it’s winning the hearts of fans," Reed said.
Part of the allure of barrel-aged beer is its rarity. Craft brewers release only limited batches once a year. The Cricket Hill Reserve barrel-aged beer is released each December. It also costs more than non-aged beers.
Chris Schiavo, owner of The Shepherd & the Knucklehead Pub in Haledon, said a distinct customer base is very into the barrel-aged beer trend. "They’re the cigar smokers and single-malt scotch crowd that likes the flavors of tobacco, oak, vanilla and peat bog," he said. "They’re a sophisticated crowd."
Barrel-aged beers are best served close to room temperature so that you can taste the complex flavors. Os Cruz of New Jersey Craft Beers offers some of his recommendations.
RESERVE ALE BOURBON BARREL-AGED PORTER
Aged from: Paymasters Porter
Brewery: Cricket Hill, Fairfield
Aged from: Old Heathen Imperial Stout
Brewery: Weyerbacher, Easton, Pa.
Aged from: Blithering Idiot Barleywine
Brewery: Weyerbacher, Easton, Pa.
OLD RASPUTIN XII
Aged from: Russian Imperial Stout
Brewery: North Coast Brewing Co., Fort Bragg, Calif.
Head to these bars for a taste
North Jersey pubs serving barrel-aged beers:
* The Shepherd & the Knuckle-head Pub, 529 Belmont Ave., Haledon; 973-942-8666; theshepnj.com
* The Copper Mine, 323 Ridge Road, North Arlington; 201-428-1223; copperminepub.com
* Andy's Corner Bar, 257 Queen Anne Road, Bogota; 201-342-9887; andyscornerbar.blogspot.com