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Lucy Saunders
4230 N. Oakland #178
Shorewood WI
53211 USA
@ site name

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In the old days, brewers served beer aged in oaken casks. Now, brewers are rolling back the barrels for flavoring beer.

A new festival of barrel-aged beer shone light on this ancient brewing technique, as adapted by American craft brewers. Organized by Todd Ashman, (former) brewmaster at the Flossmoor Station in suburban Chicago and Pete Crowley of Chicago's Rock Bottom Brewery, the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer drew almost 50 entries from Alaska to Delaware, showcasing ambitious examples of American wood-aged brews. Todd Ashman, left and Pete Crowley, right - with glass - toasting the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers

In a show of support, Miller Brewing Co.'s pilot brewery in Milwaukee sent along a barrel of its Fred Miller 1880 barleywine - an experimental brew.

The tradition of aging beer in wood began in Belgium. In Flanders, barrel-aged "red ales" are still sought after. One of the pricier brands sold in the U.S. is made by Rodenbach. Garrett Oliver, author of "The Brewmaster's Table" (Ecco/Harper Collins, May 2003), says of Rodenbach, "The most important tradition is that of aging the red ale in huge vats of unlined oak. The wood is home to dozens of wild yeasts," which spur the fermentation of residual sugars.

Thus, over the months and years, the ale grows in acidity, aroma and depth of flavor. American brewmasters, such as Wisconsin's Dan Carey of the New Glarus Brewing Co., took that tradition and rolled out a slightly different barrel.

The award-winning New Glarus Belgian Red is a good example of wood-aged fruit beer, similar to a kriek, a Belgian ale made with cherries.

"We started to ferment the Belgian Red in 3,000-gallon oak vats about seven years ago," says Carey. "We purchased these oak vats from the Rodney Strong Winery in Russian River, California." "These oak vats are not only the home to a large microflora of bacteria helpful for our spontaneous fermentation, but also lend a background of red wine character to the beer," Carey adds. Fruit beers are natural complements to the "sour" character of old red wine.

"Most people fail to realize that good fruit beer needs a 'backbone' of sourness," Carey says.

There is another type of barrel, the bourbon barrel, used in the aging of beer. Some southeastern Wisconsin breweries that age some of their beers in whiskey barrels, especially old bourbon barrels, include the Milwaukee Ale House, Delafield Brewhaus, and Tyranena Brewing Co.

Big beers, such as stouts, bocks and barleywines, are best suited to barrel aging. "A beer needs sufficient malt character to stand up to the powerful flavors of oak," Ashman says. "Last year, I experimented by aging a barleywine in an untreated, virgin oak barrel, and the raw wood flavor just consumed the barleywine. I learned that wood barrels used before to age other spirits or wine work best in aging beer," Ashman notes.

Barrels used to age bourbon or whiskey are typically charred black on the interior surfaces. The charcoal notes help mellow the spirits and charring maintains a relatively microbe-free start to the maturation. Such dark wood marries well with the dark roasted malts used to make stouts and barleywines.

Carey says that traditional wooden beer kegs (which they take to festivals) are lined with pitch. "One of our brewers used to have this job at the Dubuque Star Brewery - it's a very nasty job," he said. The pitch prevents any flavor of the wood infusing the ale. To maintain their gigantic vats, the New Glarus Brewing Co. steams the empty vessels to keep them moist. "Otherwise, the wood will shrink and leak," says Carey. This is followed by burning sulfur wicks in them to prevent the growth of mold ("keep the wood sweet"). With labor and time, the taste of barrel-aged beer develops into something as complex and varied as a fine wine. "Oak aging allows us to develop a winelike acidity in our fruit beers," says Carey.

To learn more about the current festival, now known as the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers, visit the Illinois Craft Brewers website, http://www.illinoisbeer.com

A longer version of this article appeared in the CELEBRATOR BEER NEWS.

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