Beer is best fresh. If you drink an IPA the day it is bottled or canned, it will be at its peak. Never again will it taste so good. Day by day, by degrees, its lushness will fade. Beer, unlike vinegar and Pop Tarts, is not a fixed food product.
So why then do brewers barrel-age beer?
Some food and drink is better aged. Wine. Eggnog. Arguably the best pork has been cured and left to hang for months. The best milk has been renneted and aged into cheese. And so it can be with beer. Some is better fresh. Some is better with strategic aging.
Like pickles and cured meat, barrel-aged beer isn’t merely growing old. Rather, it is growing old while other forces work slow magic. While beers age, barrel cracks let in infinitesimal traces of air, raising viscosity. And beer absorbs flavor from whatever has been added to the barrel with the beer (if anything), and from the barrel itself
Breweries across the Valley make barrel-aged beers. Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company has a room filled floor-to-ceiling with barrel-aged brews, a Willy Wonka factory of libations like aged sours and porters, often blended with one another. Wren House Brewing doesn’t have space for an extensive barrel-aging program, but has dropped barrel-aged Pie Series beers this time of year.
Goldwater Brewing Company in Scottsdale is another brewery crafting good barrel-aged beer.
Goldwater barrel-ages below its Old Town brewery. There, in the climate-controlled bunker known as Goldmine, beer changes in the 69-degree darkness of stacked barrels, often for longer than a year.
Head brewer Jordan Gregory, who works in conjunction with brew master Chad McClelland, says he barrel-ages to imbue beer with another layer of flavor.
“We’re trying to soak up all that wonderful character from what the barrel held beforehand,” he says. “You could use a pinot noir barrel. Or you could use bourbon or rum [barrels].”
What kind of wood a barrel is made from and what kind of wine, beer, or spirit it held before will affect beer flavor. A pinot noir barrel may loop in raspberry or jammy notes. Whiskey and rum barrels may bring touches of molasses or caramel. The more times a barrel is used to age beer, the less it will add the flavor of its former spirit, and the more it will add the resins and essences of the wood in comparison.
Since Goldmine opened two years ago, Goldwater has rolled out three staggered releases of barrel-aged beer. The most recent one, earlier this fall, was the biggest yet.
Like many breweries that age, Goldwater crafts a barrel-aged imperial stout.
Unlike most, Goldwater ages the same stout (called Brutus) in four different kinds of barrels. This produces four different kinds of beer that vary from one another only in the type of barrel-used, highlighting the flavor changes brought by each kind of barrel.
When I was last in, Gregory had just tapped an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. It was thick and creamy with mellow carbonation, and unshy traces of oak and vanilla on the edges. It didn’t have much warmth despite an 10.5 percent ABV. You could taste how the heavy body and extra layer of flavor notes elevated the brew.
Goldwater gets freakier from here. “Everyone does a bourbon-barrel-aged stout,” Gregory says. “That’s the generalist one. We do those as well, but we like to figure out what can we do differently to change the game in barrel-aging.”
So he has aged imperial rye brown ale in barrels. The barrels contained bourbon, and, inside on the bottom, chai tea and coffee.
And so he has zipped up the ABV on classic Kolsch, modernizing the ancient German style by brewing it with prickly pear fruit, and aging the product in pinot noir and tequila barrels. (The beer's name: Rose Cuervo.)
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And so he has conditioned a bourbon-barrel imperial stout – one brewed with berries – on cacao nibs, milk chocolate, and vanilla beans. (On the menu now.)
You can swill beers like these in Goldmine, among the barrels and steel lager tanks and moldering concrete-block walls of another age. Goldmine pours limited edition beers that don’t surface to the main taproom. At any given time, three to six barrel-aged beers will be on the menu. Gregory or cellarman Parker Duty may be chilling in the 69-degree underground, talking whiskey and wood, flavor and time.
Come the cooler months, when high-ABV beers start to hit the brain extra nicely, Goldmine is a solid spot to drink barrel-aged beers (which don't have to be high ABV but tend to be). And these strategically aged beers, though not clean and light or made to cut the sun, make for one of the more fun nooks of our maturing beer scene to explore.
Goldmine (at Goldwater Brewing Company). 3608 North Scottsdale Road; 480-350-7305.
Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.