For the longest time, discarded liquor barrels were used exclusively by angry apes trying to keep plumbers away from their girlfriends. But no more, thanks to crafty brewers who have recently figured out a way to take that wooden garbage and make delicious beer out of it.
In all seriousness, the art of barrel-aging is a centuries-old practice that adds to the beer within crazy flavor notes from the wood itself and the booze it once contained. It's an art for the patient, sure, but barrel-aging can take an already-great stout, porter, or ale and turn it into something complex, robust, and magnificent. These days, many craft breweries dip their toes into barrel-aging, but the ones contained herein have more or less mastered the process, with programs that churn out coveted bottles that just get better with age. These aren't just the best barrel-aged beers in the country (though those are here too)... they're the best all-around barrel-aging operations on the scene.
Editor's Note: This story focuses on breweries that churn out barrel-aged stouts, porters, ales, and the like... you'll definitely notice an absence of sours. Before you hit the comments section, though, rest assured that we'll be rounding up barrel-aged sours very, very soon. As soon as we recover from all these imperial stouts, actually.
Essential drinking: Black Tuesday
Hidden away from the raw teenage emotions of Mischa Barton, Orange County’s Bruery rose to the ranks of legend not because of its more-creative-than-it-sounds name, but because its barrel-aging program pretty much has something for everybody, taking the often mysterious (to newcomers) methodology and putting it on the level. Those barrels come with traces of everything from tequila to rum, bourbon, and regular ol’ oak, and the brewery uses its arsenal of wood to craft a seemingly endless onslaught of flavors, from the annual Black Tuesday -- a 19% imperial stout that gets somehow better when added to another barrel for the Reserve -- to the sweetly sneaky Mash barleywine to actually great collaborations like Wineification, which blends Black Tuesday with grapes from a vineyard. This place breeds whales, and breeds them well. Oh, and there’s also the matter of the sour and bottle-conditioned offerings, but that’s another story altogether.
Kansas City, MO
Essential drinking: Rye-on-Rye rye beer aged in Templeton rye barrels
Since expanding production 10 years ago, Kansas City’s Boulevard has added some killer barrel-aged beers to its fleet, but it truly upped the ante when it released Rye-on-Rye, a generously hopped rye ale mellowed to a T in Templeton rye whiskey casks. It's like spicy and sweet went to war on your palate, each battling for total domination until charred oak stormed onto the scene, convincing the flavor warriors to join forces for a better tomorrow. All hail big oaky.
Paso Robles, CA
Essential drinking: Sucaba bourbon barrel-aged barleywine
With a longstanding commitment to the craft, Firestone Walker is widely considered to be one of the godfathers of American barrel-aging. What began as a pet project 20 years before has since exploded into a massive barrel-works facility housing over 1,500 constantly full barrels and, judging from the California brewery’s January 2016 Sucaba release, the old dog’s still got it. This bourbon barrel-aged barleywine lives up to its style's boozy reputation without sacrificing an ounce of roasty, chocolaty, cherry-tinged complexity. The oak imparts a velvety mouthfeel, softening any residual bitterness -- which, at 13.4% ABV, makes this bad boy dangerously drinkable.
Essential drinking: Assassin imperial stout
It takes a lot to make the middle of Iowa into a destination for beer drinkers, but damned if Toppling Goliath didn't do it. It’d be enough of a draw just to get your lips on pseudoSue, considering TG’s status among seekers of harder-to-find beer nerds who aren't in its relatively small distribution channel. But, with respect to Sue, she’s got nothing on the likes of Assassin, an elusive imperial stout available on a very limited basis, or the Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, which is packed with coffee and more than a little winking at a certain Michigan brewery. Naughty Temple, meanwhile, is a relatively low-impact 7.2% ale aged in whiskey barrels that packs enough of that bourbon sting to make you think it was twice as potent. There are small-batch one-offs too (again, you should really get to Decorah), and while there are more gargantuan programs on this list, not many breweries are able to pull off this kind of sorcery on such a consistent basis.
Essential drinking: Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout
To make its award-winning Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout, Amherst’s Central Waters Brewing Co. dumps a full 75lbs of fresh, local cherries into each oak barrel before filling it up with its Satin Solitude imperial stout. Add six months and the result is a shockingly drinkable, 10% ABV dream, layered with chocolate-covered tart cherry, creamy vanilla, and nutty, oaky bourbon notes with just a hint of bitter coffee -- a Midwestern winter’s antidote in bottle form. No stranger to the wonders of wood, the 20-year-old craft pioneer brews five different bourbon barrel-aged numbers under its Brewer's Reserve label, including an imperial stout aged on coffee beans and a beyond impeccable barrel-aged barleywine that won gold at 2008’s Great American Beer Festival.
Essential drinking: Eclipse barrel-aged imperial stout
This neo-rustic brewery is off the beaten path north of Tahoe, but that’s pretty appropriate given how much it tends to stray off the beaten path. Its most coveted concoction, the jet-black Eclipse, just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a sold-out run of one-offs aged in everything from Woodford to Elijah Craig 12-year, Buffalo Trace, and Old Forester barrels. The brewmaster relishes in creating pub-exclusive masterpieces on a whim. Some of those whims are bottle-only, and can only be had via a membership, which entitles you to the best bit of mail since your aunt sent you $5 on your birthday. That'll save you a trip to the wilds of California... though, frankly, it's worth a pilgrimage, even if it's just to have a taste of the Concentrated Evil Belgian dark strong ale, or a brewer's whim concoction like the Donner Party Porter. You’ll be a believer -- and, more importantly, a member -- after one sip.
Grand Rapids, MI
Essential drinking: KBS and Canadian Breakfast Stout
For one of the country’s largest craft breweries, Founders' barrel-aging program isn’t exactly extensive. Yet what it lacks in quantity it absolutely makes up for in quality, putting out not one, but two beer-geek white whales: KBS and CBS. Each year, the boozy bourbon barrel-aged KBS pulls nerds out of their basements in droves with its intense roasted coffee nose, bitter dark chocolate bite, and lingering burnt caramel. CBS, or Canadian Breakfast Stout, is KBS’ lesser-known neighbor to the north, an earthier, sweeter version aged in bourbon barrels that previously stored pure Michigan-made maple syrup. Both styles are bottled perfection, deserving of all the respect and attention one can muster after downing a 12.4% ABV imperial stout.
Essential drinking: Worker’s Stomp barrel-aged saison
Two Roads brewmaster Phil Markowski wrote the book on farmhouse ales -- literally, his deep dive into the classic European style changed the game back in 2004 -- and boy, does it show. In 2015, the Connecticut-based brewery’s Worker’s Stomp took home the gold for top saison at the esteemed Great International Beer Festival, where the white wine barrel-aged Belgian blew the competition away with its shockingly balanced mix of juicy citrus, delicate oak, and richly layered spice. Next to the un-aged Worker’s Comp, a delicious brew in its own right, the 7.5% seasonal truly shines, each luscious flavor fully enhanced by the magical combination of bent wood and sweet, sweet time.
Essential drinking: Straight Jacket barrel-aged barleywine
Chicago winters don’t play -- by early February, even the toughest Malort-swigging Third Coasters need some serious warming up. Enter Revolution Brewing’s Straight Jacket, a 13.5% ABV stone fruit-splosion with loads of vanilla, bourbon, and toasted tobacco ready to battle any blizzard. Revolution prides itself on its enormous 600-barrel program overseen by head brewer Jim Cibak, whose resume includes stints at barrel-aging powerhouses Goose Island, Firestone Walker, and 3 Floyds. These guys set themselves apart by focusing on extracting all the bold, deeply infused woody notes some brewers shy away from. Go big or go home.
Essential drinking: Bourbon Barrel Champion Ground
What started as a beloved brewpub in the shadow of Ohio University (that's Bobcats, not Buckeyes) has grown into a serious barrel-aging force to be reckoned with since opening its production facility in 2013, exploring beyond the standard bourbon with barrels that contained other spirits like rum, tequila, and sherry. Actually, experimenting is the wrong word -- these guys know damn well what they're doing. But hey, not everything has to be a stylistic game-changer. If you're into barrel-aged coffee stouts (and you should be!), the Champion Ground is one of the finest examples of the form you'll find anywhere.
Essential drinking: Frost Monster imperial stout aged in oak barrels
When it comes to putting beer into barrels, Captain Lawrence definitely knows what it's doing. Founder and head brewer Scott Vaccaro has been quietly dominating New York’s barrel-aging game for 10 years now, producing an impressive range of spirit-aged brews including a bourbon-barrel espresso stout, a Belgian tripel aged in apple brandy barrels, and a lip-smackingly delicious rum-aged porter. The most popular amongst the good Captain’s ever-expanding fleet is without a doubt the oak-aged Frost Monster. The 12% ABV, pitch-black imperial stout aged in apple brandy barrels packs an enormous boozy punch, hovering somewhere between rum-soaked fruit cake and a sharp, licorice-like dark chocolate bitterness. This monster is not for the faint of heart (or liver).
Essential drinking: Rare Bourbon County Stout
Yes, Goose is not without its issues within the craft community these days, what with its sale to AB InBev and its having to refund a significant proportion of 2015's Bourbon County Stout haul due to infection. Caveats aside, you can't really talk about the state of barrel-aging programs within the American craft scene without tipping a cap to Goose's OG influence, and it's still turning out stunners like 2015's Rare BCS, which was aged in barrels that held Heaven Hill whiskey for more than 30 years. Also, if you're ever in Chicago during the bonkers Black Friday release, the annual small-scale Proprietor's BCS is a must-have that changes every year but always delivers a fascinating flavor profile.
Essential drinking: The Abyss
One of the most influential breweries in one of the most influential beer states, Oregon’s Deschutes is best known for offerings like the quintessential Mirror Pond Pale and Black Butte Porter, plus the beloved holiday mainstay Jubelale. But for true believers, the real Christmas present is The Abyss, a stout that spends 12 months in pinot and bourbon barrels and emerges with more complex nuances than the James Cameron movie that shares its name... and that’s to say nothing about the ultra-limited Cognac-barrel version. Meanwhile, that same reserve series recently dropped the Pinot Suave Belgian ale spiked with pinot noir, adding another notch to a roster that includes a bourbon-barrel take on Black Butte. Then there’s the Pub Reserve series, which recently wrought the startlingly complex Murder in the Rye, a wowzenbock birthed in rum barrels, and a bourbon-aged Pilsner. Those beers alone -- plus other one-offs -- make a visit to Bend (or the Portland offshoot) essential for completists and lovers of all things good.
Essential drinking: Tweak
When we named Avery the best brewery in the great state of Colorado, we knew we had to back it up. We could have done that with the great sours, or infinitely satisfying IPA. But the barrel-aging program here is, quite frankly, staggering, and it gets us really amped up. Or maybe we're amped because our favorite beer, Tweak, is loaded with coffee and packs a nearly 18% punch that somehow gets hidden in all the flavor from the bourbon barrels. Then there’s the spankin’-new Xolotl, which takes a cue from the also-great vanilla bean stout and spikes the sweetness with chilies, cacao nibs, and a big ol’ dose of oaky whiskey. These cats are approaching the barrel-aging process as a playground, with new beers (well, months-old beers, but they’re new to us) hitting bottles and taps in limited quantity all the time, with huge-ass stouts, ales, Belgians, and more offering up more than a big-ass ABV. But they have that too. It’s great.
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1. The Bruery715 Dunn Way, Placentia
2. Boulevard Brewing Co2501 Southwest Blvd, Kansas City
3. Firestone Walker Brewery1400 Ramada Dr, Paso Robles
4. Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.310 College Dr, Decorah
5. Central Waters Brewing Co.351 Allen St, Amherst
6. FiftyFifty Craft Brewery11197 Brockway Rd, Truckee
7. Founders Brewing Co.235 Grandville Ave SW, Grand Rapids
8. Two Roads Brewing Company1700 Stratford Ave, Stratford
9. Revolution Brewing3340 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago
10. Jackie O's Pub & Brewery30 W Union St, Athens
11. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company444 Saw Mill River Rd, Elmsford
12. Goose Island Brewery1800 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago
13. Deschutes Brewery Bend Public House1044 NW Bond St, Bend
14. Avery Brewing Co.4910 Nautilus Ct, Boulder
After 2+ years of existing strictly on their own suds, Orange's local microbrewers have opened up a macro malt shop, featuring a tasting room, charcuterie plates, and a selection of over 100 different hard-to-find bottles, which range from Belgium's Saison Rue to Papier, their anniversary ale.
Since expanding production in the early 2000s, Kansas City’s Boulevard has added some stellar barrel-aged beers to their fleet, but they truly upped the ante when they released Rye-on-Rye, a generously hopped rye ale mellowed to a T in Templeton rye whiskey casks. An extensive selection of year-round and seasonal offerings are additionally distributed to 31 states, and available for tastings to locals and ambitious beer aficionados.
With a longstanding commitment to the craft, Firestone Walker is widely considered to be one of the godfathers of American barrel-aging. What began as a pet project has since exploded into a massive barrel works facility housing over 1,500 constantly full barrels and, judging from California brewery’s January 2016 Sucaba release, the old dog’s still got it. For interested folk, an exclusive union tour offers guests a glimpse behind the brew deck, the cellar, the Firestone Union system, and the highly-regarded barrel aging room.
It takes a lot to make the middle of Iowa into a destination for beer drinkers, but damned if Toppling Goliath didn’t do it. It’s be enough of a draw just to get your lips on PseudoSue, considering TG’s status among seekers of harder-to-find beer nerds who aren’t in its relatively small distribution channel. There are small-batch one-offs too (again, you should really get to Decorah), and while there are more gargantuan programs on this list, not many breweries are able to pull off this kind of sorcery on such a consistent basis.
Amherst WI's Central Waters is a simple brewery-- it's motto claims that all you need for a good beer is, "ale, sun, earth, and sky." This low-key approach and attention to sustainability governs Central Waters's brewing processes. All hops that go into their beer are locally sourced within Wisconsin and the brewery itself employs many energy efficient technologies in making their delicious ales, lagers, and seasonal session IPAs.
Although this casual microbrewery in Truckee is off the beaten path, its known for creating pub-exclusive masterpieces on a whim...such as the Donner Party Porter (a deep brown brew with hints of dark chocolate, espresso, and dried fruit). The real winner, however, is the famed, jet-black barrel-aged imperial stout: Eclipse.
Founders is the suds-pumping heart of Grand Rapids, one of America’s truly great beer towns, offering both year-round (All Day IPA, Dirty Bastard) and seasonal varieties to try or buy. But it’s not just about the beer. The constantly buzzing (especially during Michigan’s preciously short patio season) taproom somehow manages to be cozy and intimate despite its airplane hangar-like dimensions, and the unreasonably giant sandwiches are frequently named for Founders brews (try the Dirty Bastard… also, pairing idea!).
Founded in 2012, this brewery aims to go "the road less traveled" when crafting brews: brewmaster Phil Markowski wrote the book on Farmhouse Ales, cinching the gold at Great International Beer Festival with the white wine barrel-aged Belgian, which offers a shockingly balanced mix of juicy citrus, delicate oak, and richly layered spice. Seven year-round, 16 seaonsal brews, and food truck on site are supplied at is Stratford brewpub.
Revolution's brewery is where kegs, cans and bottles get filled for distribution, and it's also the location of a taproom where tastings occur every Wednesday. This is not to be confused with the original brewpub location on Milwaukee Avenue, where you can get food in addition to your beer. Guided tours are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so visitors are encouraged to drop by early and grab a pint while they wait.
What started as a beloved brewpub in the shadow of Ohio University has grown into a serious barrel-aging force to be reckoned with since opening its production facility in 2013. -- exploring beyond the standard bourbon with barrels that contained other spirits like rum, tequila, and sherry. This spot is equipped with 16 taps, along with a food cart dishing out locally-sourced eats.
At this Upstate New York brewery, you can sample truly unique drafts and can even purchase freshly brewed beers. Known especially for their barrel aged beers, head brewer Scott Vaccaro's creations include a bourbon barrel espresso stout, a Belgian Tripel aged in apple brandy barrels, and a lip-smackingly delicious rum aged porter. Book an informational tour on their website, and visit the on-site tasting room with snacks available to try with all of the beers on tap.
A pioneer in bourbon/barrel-aged beer, this Chicago brewery specializes in hand-crafted ales and lagers, seasonal brews and specialty beers. Over 20 different draft options accompany wide-variety lunch and dinner menus. Highlights include stunners like 2015's BCS rare, which was aged in barrels that held Heaven Hill whiskey for more than 30 years.
Deschutes Brewery is a nationally acclaimed craft brewery based in Bend, Oregon, an artsy small town about three hours outside of Portland. Known for their full-bodied IPAs and stouts, Deschutes offers a varied enough output to cater to every type of drinker, from novice to beer geek. Their Bend tasting room and pub is a cozy spot to grab a drink Downtown.
This mega-facility in Gunbarrel has a full-service restaurant that actually looks like a restaurant, with decor and napkins and stuff. Granted, no one goes to a brewery for the food -- but that doesn’t stop the kitchen from putting some forethought into pub standards like quadrupel-braised onion soup, brisket-topped nachos, and smoked prime rib. Still, it’s the beer you come for, and it’s beer you shall have from 30 taps, many of them devoted to one-offs and experimental releases that you can only get right here. (By the way, there are 30 more in the taproom downstairs, which means the math is in any avid Avery fan’s favor.)