Wood is Good

The new thing in beer is old: wood-aging. Forward-looking beer makers are looking back to the past for the future of beer.

For centuries wooden barrels were the standard container for storing, shipping and serving beer. In my mind’s eye I see a mighty British wooden clipper as it rounds the Cape of Good Hope, its hold filled with firkins of India pale ale bound for Calcutta and Bombay. A youthful diet of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian seafaring novels will do that to your mind.

But yesterday’s brewers weren’t interested in their beer tasting of wood. New oak barrels were flushed with boiling water and hydrochloric acid or lined with pitch to prevent beer tasting of wood. In the 20th century, beer makers happily switched to sterile stainless steel tanks and kegs. Yet whisky makers continued to use wood in creating their beverages. And both traditional winemakers and innovators like Robert Mondavi used wood to create both classic and revolutionary new wines.

Only recently have some inventive brewers taken a page from whisky and wine and turned to wood to create interesting, new, flavourful beers. These innovators have shown that aging beer in wood can add complexity, with unique flavours and aromas the happy result. Wood-aged beers are especially well-suited to Canadian winters as they need to be stronger, more robust styles to avoid having the wood dominate the flavour. Wood-aged beers are more potent, darker and spicier styles like barley wine, imperial stout and strong ale.

The wood used by beer makers most often is American oak in barrels used for making bourbon whiskey. By U.S. law, bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years in new, never-used oak barrels. This means there is a supply of gently-used bourbon barrels available for beer makers. In addition, brewers have made use of oak barrels used for aging wine, sherry, as well as more unusual ones such as Japanese brewer Hitachino’s use of cedar barrels used for aging sake. The most harmonious recycling is the use of barrels used to age Scotch whisky, given that beer and scotch start life as brothers, both made of malt and water.

Like many great innovations, the idea of aging beer in wood barrels was a happy accident. In 2002 the distillers of Glenfiddich, William Grant & Sons, wanted to make an ale-finished whisky. They asked an Edinburgh brewer to make a beer, which was put into oak barrels. After 30 days, the beer was taken out and whisky put in to finish. The ale-finished whisky was a real success. But the beer used to season the barrels was poured away. After a few months the brewer discovered that the distillery workers were drinking the discarded beer, calling it “absolutely fantastic.” A company was formed to market the beer and now Innis & Gunn is not only one of Britain’s top independent brewers, it is the most popular bottled British beer in Canada. And I like to imagine that beer crossing the Atlantic to Canada in wooden casks in the hold of a tall ship.

Innis & Gunn Highland Cask (7.1%) Scotland

Innis & Gunn Original is a sweet, strong ale aged in bourbon whiskey barrels. Think of it as Johnnie Walker Red Label. The limited release Highland Cask then is Johnny Walker Gold Label, matured for 69 days in 18 year-old Scotch whisky barrels. It is moderately sweet, tasting and smelling of toffee and vanilla, with a touch of malt plus whisky warmth.

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 (8.0%) Scotland

Harviestoun partnered with distiller Highland Park to create a spectacular beer. Their porter, Old Engine Oil, is aged in barrels used to age Highland Park’s 12 year-old Scotch, creating Ola Dubh (“Black Oil” in Gaelic). This is a perfect Alberta beer — black and viscous as bitumen, subtle smoky aroma and a roasty, bittersweet chocolate taste to carry us through our long winter nights.

St. Ambroise Imperial Russian Stout (9.2%) Montreal

Wooden tall ships from Britain not only carried pale ale to India, but also powerful stout to Russia, where it gained the name Imperial as it supplied the Tsar Catherine the Great’s court. Aged in bourbon wood barrels, this pitch-black ale has a smoky aroma and a rich taste with hints of chocolate, licorice and coffee. Smooth but with a hop kick and some alcohol warmth.

Phillips The Hammer Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout (8.3%) Victoria, BC

What a delight having innovative BC brewer Phillips now available in Alberta! With The Hammer, Phillips ages their already-delicious Russian imperial stout in bourbon barrels to create a mellower beer with woody and smoky flavours. Less bombastic than its name implies, this is a nice entry-level introduction to a robust, demanding style.

Dieu du Ciel Solstice d’Hiver (10.2%) Montreal

Barley wine is another historic British big beer style given a tweak by today’s craft brewers. Montreal mavericks Dieu du Ciel age brew their Winter Solstice beer in summer and age it in bourbon wood barrels for five months. The resulting beer is powerful, bitter and liqueur-like — perfect for sipping on a chilly Edmonton winter’s eve.

Alley Kat Glenda Sherbrooke (18.5%) Edmonton

Edmonton’s Alley Kat brews where others fear to brew. Egged on by Sherbrooke Liquor Store, Alley Kat has brewed a powerful and powerfully good beer not for the faint of palate. By aging their renowned Old Deuteronomy barley wine in 10-year-old single malt whisky barrels from Nova Scotia’s Glenora Distillery, Alley Kat has created Canada’s strongest beer.

Peter Bailey is an Edmonton-area librarian who simply asks for a tall ship and a star to steer her by. And maybe a pint of porter.