As is often the case in the world of craft beer, barrel-aging is a development that’s been a long time coming. The fact is: even though it seems to be the latest in a long line of other fleeting industry fads, the process is actually one that’s been around for thousands of years. Originally implemented in Europe during the 13th century as a means for brewers to produce Belgian Lambics, over time, barrel-aging grew in application to include other styles from the Old Continent like German Rauchbiers and English country ales. Fast forward to the early 1990s and you have finally one of the first instances of barrel-aging in the modern craft movement: Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. In addition to being revolutionary at the time for its incorporation of Jim Beam bourbon casks, the Greg Hall original has managed to stay relevant even today.
All that is to say — there are now more barrel-aged beers on the market than ever before, with just about every brewery in the United States looking to try its hand at an experimental cask finish. And while there’s no denying that the trend has led to some incredible innovation, it’s also one that’s given rise to some pretty poor-tasting results. Because let’s face it. It’s hard enough as it is to brew an imperial stout that won’t bowl you over with its booziness; adding another alcohol to the mix could just as easily accent the existing flavors as it could become a recipe for a next-day hangover. In order to save you the hassle of having to find the best these such beers for yourself, we’ve put together a handy guide to get you off on the right foot. What follows is what we consider to be the cream of the crop, brews that are undoubtedly the best barrel-aged beers you can buy.
What Is A Barrel-Aged Beer?
The Finishing Touch
Although there are countless options on the market, and each one is not without its fair share of complexities, as an overarching concept, barrel-aged beers are actually pretty easy to understand. That’s because, no matter if it’s a lager, an ale, or some entirely new experimental brew, for a beer to be considered “barrel-aged,” it only has to have spent a period of time within a cask or in contact with some wood. Even then, there are a number of ways for a brewer to go about the process, be it by using different wood types (i.e., oak or cherry) or various finishing formats (i.e., chips or spirals). Put another way, the possibilities are practically endless when it comes to barrel-aged beers, with all kinds of casks — from bourbon and whiskey to rum and wine — offering an opportunity to further enhance the base brew’s flavor.
Firestone Walker Parabola
An annual release from the Proprietor’s Vintage Series, Parabola is an imperial stout that’s become one of Firestone Walker’s most well-regarded beers ever. For 2021, it spent 12 months in a mixture of 8-year Buffalo Trace bourbon, 12-year Wheated Weller whiskey, and 6-year Templeton Rye whiskey barrels. As with past vintages, it comes packed with quintessentially bourbon flavors like black cherry, dark chocolate, and coffee. However, this year it also adds subtle hints of cracked pepper and cereal gain to make it even more of a distinguished experience.
Great Divide Barrel-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout
For this full-bodied brew, Great Divide opted to mature their highly-acclaimed Yeti Imperial Stout in whiskey casks for a period of over 12 months. In practice, this has taken it from a buzz-worthy 9.5% to a boozy 12.5% ABV, all the while making it even more complex along the way. So, where the original offered a roasted, almost coffee-like flavor with notes of caramel and toffee, this barrel-aged adaptation adds to that hints of vanilla and oak along with a warming whiskeyed finish.
Ballast Point x High West Barrel-Aged Victory At Sea
The product of a partnership between San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewery and Park City’s High West Distillery, this collaborative brew sees the former’s Victory At Sea porter transformed into a delicious oak-aged imperial expression. Finished in a combination of High West’s bourbon and rye whiskey casks, it pours a full-bodied black and tastes like dark chocolate, liqueur, and just a bit of spice. Buyer beware with this one; Ballast Point has managed to hide the 12% alcohol content so well you won’t even notice until it’s too late.
Harpoon Brewing The Bock Hog
Another joint effort that crosses industry lines, ‘The Bock Hog’ is essentially a Harpoon Doppelbock conditioned in WhistlePig casks. For this year’s expression, Harpoon Brewery aged the base beer in the very barrels that once housed The Boss Hog VII whiskey. On the palate, you get lots of familiar bock flavors like toffee, rum raisin, and cacao. However, because of its time spent in Spanish Oak and South American Teakwood casks, it adds a bit of complexity through the finish, with holiday spice, vanilla, and char lingering on the tongue.
New Holland Dragon’s Milk
New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk is a name that needs no introduction, as it’s become one of the best-selling barrel-aged stouts in the US since it first started hitting shelves back in 2001. And it’s for good reason — despite having a pretty bourbon-heavy palate, it’s far sweeter than most stouts on the market, and it doesn’t put you off with any of the typical bitterness you’d find in similar offerings. If you’re looking for a brew that skews more towards chocolate milk than it does whiskeyed malt, this is one beer that’s sure to be worth your while.
Oskar Blues Barrel Aged Ten Fidy
If you’re familiar with Oskar Blues for their Dale’s Pale Ale, then you’ll be pleased to know that they’re capable of much more than hoppy mountain craft beers — just take this offering, for example. A barrel-aged take on the Colorado-based brewery’s Ten Fidy imperial stout, it spent a solid eight months in bourbon casks for an extra helping of dark malty flavor. Pairing notes of vanilla with woody oak and whiskey spice, it makes for a brew that’s smooth, drinkable, and downright delicious.
Russian River Supplication
Bourbon may get the lion’s share of barrel-aged brews, but that’s not to say that it’s the only alcohol being used in craft beer. Rather, as Russian River proves with Supplication, even Pinot Noir casks can make for a viable maturation medium. Finished for 12 months using sour cherries as well as brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus yeasts, the result is a brown ale that’s sweet yet bitter with just a little bit of funk thrown in for good measure.
Rogue Rolling Thunder Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
Rogue is something of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to making drinks, producing everything from craft beer and spirits to canned cocktails and CBD sodas. In other words, the Oregon outfit has everything at its disposal necessary for a quality barrel-aged brew, so it’s a good thing that it’s managed to deliver in the case of this imperial stout. For the 2020 edition of Rolling Thunder, Rogue conditioned the beer for six months in its Dead Guy Whiskey barrels, meaning that it clocks in at an eye-watering 14.4% and comes with all of the accompanying oaky flavors one would expect.
Epic Big Bad Baptist Double Chocolate Double Peanut Butter Cup
Each autumn, Epic Brewing releases an assortment of different Big Bad Baptist beers, with one of them being the tasty double chocolate peanut butter cup expression pictured here. Pouring a dark brown with a slightly frothy head, it’s almost milkshake-like in mouthfeel with a taste reminiscent of a rich dessert. On the nose, it’s distinctly nutty with some roasted coffee and cocoa, after which it follows things up with a palate packed full of Reese’s Cup candy flavor.
To this day, KBS remains one of the most highly sought-after seasonal releases in craft beer, oftentimes selling out before it’s even had a chance to hit the shelf. If you can manage to get your hands on a pack, know that your efforts will be well-rewarded. With a woody smell, sweet taste, and bold liquor-like punch, this is one Founders brew that more than lives up to the hype. Just be sure to stock up while you can — there’s no telling when you’re likely to find it again in stores.
Guinness Imperial Stout
Guinness’s Baltimore-based Open Gate Brewery has a long history of using casks to make beer, so it should come as no surprise that the latest of such expressions earned its way onto our list. Developed specifically with barrel-aging in mind, this imperial stout spent some time in Kentucky bourbon to add an oaky finish to its strong, robust body. Clocking in at 10.3% ABV, it has a rich chocolaty taste that offers an ideal accompaniment to something like a nice meaty steak or a garlicky rib roast.
For those who aren’t familiar, Perennial Artisan Ales is a small-batch microbrewery specializing in beers that are as premium as they are unique. Take one sip of Abraxas, and you’ll find it to be no exception, for it combines the spice of ancho chili peppers and cinnamon sticks with the subtle sweetness of cocoa nibs and vanilla beans. Complex in body and delicious in taste, this imperial stout is made only better by the fact that it’ll continue to improve as it’s allowed to age in the bottle.
Goose Island Bourbon County Stout Kentucky Fog
A Kentucky-inspired take on the London Fog latte, this version of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout offers a solid barrel-aged alternative for those who aren’t too hot on coffee. Combining Earl Grey, black tea, and clover honey, it makes for a complex tasting experience loaded with floral flavors. In order to really appreciate this one for all it’s worth, you have no choice but to try it for yourself — the silky mouthfeel and mild notes of fruit are a pairing that’s unlike anything else on the market.
Deschutes Abyss Old World
Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with any one of the many barrel-aged beers Deschutes produces — they’re that good. However, we liked this Old World rendition of their Abyss expression in particular because its Sherry cask finishing means that it stands out in a sea of otherwise similar offerings. Fermented from a mix of roasted barley, black malts, and an assortment of different hop varietals like Nugget and Northern Brewer, it features a syrupy flavor profile that falls somewhere in between licorice and molasses.
Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops
Black Ops is a brew that’s become so legendary over time that — up until recently — not even Brooklyn Brewery would “admit” to its existence. Regardless of whether you subscribe to the mysterious marketing, there’s no denying that it makes for a truly exceptional beer. Aged in Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon barrels before being bottled flat and re-fermented using Champagne yeast, the result is a Russian Imperial Stout that’s bold upfront, boozy on the palate, and surprisingly dry through the finish.
The 8 Best Beer Home Brewing Kits
With all of the innovation happening in the craft beer industry at the moment, we’d understand if you feel inspired to make some for yourself. No matter if you’re just getting your feet wet or you have your process down pat, be sure to check out our guide to the best beer home brewing kits.
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