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Can there be such a thing as a hidden trend? I think so. I think we have become engulfed by a wave of rich, heavily flavoured and deeply alcoholic dark beer without even realising it.
The relentless march of the barrel-matured stout is upon us, but no one really seems to be talking about it. It could be better called a stealth trend. It has crept up on us. That would be appropriate for the veritable tsunami of BA stouts that I see on the market today. Time is a key factor; it allows complex flavours to gradually develop and harmonise. It is a vogue that has arisen in many places simultaneously, spontaneously almost, just like the wild bacteria that inhabit the barrels. The brewers started this journey months or even years ago and now we reap the rewards.
I’m not saying that barrel-ageing dark beers is new. Far from it, we can argue about the mythology of 18th-century Russian imperial stout until the cows come home. Some breweries have been ageing beer successfully for a long time. Innis & Gunn springs to mind, along with Thornbridge’s multi-award-winning (and delicious) Necessary Evil. This was first brewed in 2018 and is aged for around eight months, depending on factors like the time of year and how fresh the spirit casks are.
Cloudwater Brewing in Manchester started its own barrel-ageing programme in 2015 and has learned much.
“It’s a very different mindset to fresh beer,” brewer Paul Jones said. “Our approach to fresh beer has changed because of what we’ve learned through our work with ageing, blending, carbonic maceration, and using combinations of yeasts and brewing bacteria.”
One of my Nottingham favourites, Neon Raptor’s first beers was a six per cent porter matured with American oak, Kentucky bourbon and vanilla. When it won a local home-brew competition in 2015, it provided the impetus for Adam Henderson to make the jump to the professional brewing world. I know I’m talking about stouts here really, but the point is that dark beers, matured in wooden vessels, have been around for a long time and they have always had a bit of a cult following.
I’m the first to admit to being a card-carrying member of that cult. Maybe that’s why I take note of each new bottle, can or cask that’s released into the wild. I can reel off a list of probably 50 breweries that have a 2022 release without really having to think particularly hard.
As so often the case, you can see an influence from our American cousins here, where barrel-aged beers have been de rigueur for some time. But I also wonder whether it is a reaction to the avalanche of pastry stouts we saw in 2019. They were big on flavour, but often quite artificial in taste. Their dominance on the market has since dwindled, but I can imagine brewers being inspired to make something that is just as bold but has more of a sense of artistry and authenticity.
I asked Julie O’Grady from Neptune brewery in Liverpool what inspired her to start barrel ageing.
“We want to see how our beer reacts in each different type of barrel that we buy. Does it enhance, alter, enrich or even work!”
Julie’s latest release, Hear the Sirens, is a 10 per cent imperial stout, with both the regular and whisky barrel-aged versions available in cans. Lucky visitors to the 7th Independent Salford Beer Festival got to try this limited-edition beer on cask and the feedback was excellent. And that hits on another strength of the style. As Julie says: “We like to be able to offer something different to our customers – special one-off beers. Yes, it can be expensive, and it takes up space, but we love to taste the results and it helps us to grow as brewers. This is the first time we’ve done a blend, having previously stuck to single barrels for our annual BA release, Medusa, for example.”
Brewing is more than just a business (in most cases…). It is a calling and a craft. Barrel ageing any beer is challenging and unpredictable. And at the end of a successful project, you are left with a premium product that is exciting both to you and to your customers. I find it inspiring.
Am I inventing a trend just because it’s something I like? Well, that is eminently possible.