The wine snobs of the world are constantly rambling on about exactly how many months their favourite wine spent in oak barrels, usually while carefully swirling a glass and sniffing deeply.
Much of the time, you can just ignore what those stuffy wine snobs are saying, as lots of them just make stuff up. However, the oak part does have merit.
Most red wines are aged in oak barrels, which imparts many desirable flavours and aromas into the wine, including vanilla, smokiness, and assorted spices.
Aging in oak also softens up the harsh tannins in a wine, making for a smoother mouth feel, and all-around more enjoyable wine.
Lest you think that only the wine snobs appreciate a good oaking, the whisky producers have been paying the same attention to oak barrels for hundreds of years.
In fact, up until relatively recently, even beer was aged in wooden barrels named firkins or hogsheads, which held from 40 to 250 litres of beer.
It was not until the 1950s that breweries switched from wooden barrels to stainless steel vats for ageing their beers.
Not only was the stainless steel much stronger, it was much easier to clean, which was critical for reuse. The old wooden barrels were pretty much impossible to sanitize, which meant they had to be regularly replaced. Stainless steel vats could be cleaned and reused pretty much indefinitely, making for a cleaner and fresher beer than those aged in wooden barrels.
However, with the growing craft beer movement worldwide, there have been some brave or foolhardy brewmasters trying their hand with the old methods of ageing their beer in wooden barrels.
The modern-day pioneer that spearheaded this movement was Innis & Gunn, a small family-owned brewery from Scotland that opened its doors in 2003.
Innis & Gunn were originally trying to produce an ale-flavoured whisky. They started out by marinating a whisky barrel in beer, later intending to age whisky in the beer-soaked barrel.
However, in a happy accident, they found that the barrel-aged beer was delicious, so they switched gears and started bottling beer instead of whisky.
Closer to home, a crafty new brewery in Calgary called The Establishment started producing barrel aged beer last year, as a way to differentiate themselves from the ever-increasing number of craft brewers popping up in our fair province.
As you might imagine, barrels take up a lot more storage space and sanitization efforts than the giant stainless steel vats that are more common in modern breweries, so barrel aged beer makes up only a small portion of the brews available at The Establishment Brewing.
On my first visit to their tap room, I was awed by the dozens of used wine barrels stacked neatly along two walls, and felt a jealous longing that I would have to wait a few months before the barrels were tapped.
Sporting a modern brewery as well as a large barrel inventory, The Establishment typically starts with a normal beer made in their state of the art modern brew house, then re-ferments a batch in a used oak wine barrel, often with a few special ingredients. Aging time is as short as 3 months, or as long as 3 years, depending on the beer style and watchful eye of the brewmaster.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a recently bottled Saison on my last visit to the tap room, which had been aged in an oak barrel for just over 3 months. Saison is a beer style made famous by Belgian farmers in the middle ages, who brewed up a weak beer to be served to the farm workers at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Saison beer style has increased in strength from its humble 2% ABV beginnings in the middle ages, when it was considered a safer alternative to water in those plague-borne days.
Typically flavoured with herbs or botanicals, Saison exhibits great variation between batches, which was also the case at The Establishment, because each former wine barrel has its own microbiome of flora that interacts with the development of the beer over a period of months.
The revival of barrel aging is catching on at a few adventurous brewers across Alberta, so ask for one at your local booze merchant or brewery tap room to experience it for yourself.