Forget pints. Some people like their beer by the barrel.
Arizona breweries are joining the national trend of aging beer in wooden barrels to create new flavors tinged of wine, cognac and tequila.
“The booziness kind of smacks you in the face with flavor,” said Ivor Cryderman, part owner of Chef’s Kitchen and Catering Food Truck in Tucson who fancies barrel-aged beers around the state.
Companies in Tucson, Scottsdale, Gilbert and other Arizona communities are testing the market for barrel-aged beers, which has been on the rise nationally, according to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, based in Boulder, Colo.
“Craft brewing is built on innovation with a demand for flavorful beers and a variety of style,” Watson said. “Barrel-aged beers find new flavor profiles you can’t get with pure brewing techniques.”
Beer companies are moving on from popular bourbon and whiskey barrels and experimenting with gin, tequila, rum, brandy, wine, cognac, sherry, and more, according to Ben Keene, editor of BeerAdvocate Magazine, a monthly publication that reviews all variations of beer for fans and industry alike.
The beers are stored for aging in oak barrels that were previously used by vineyards or distilleries to mature other spirits, allowing the beer to acquire character from the leftover flavors.
Dragoon Brewing Company in Tucson ages a selection of its beer in tequila and rum barrels, according to Tristan White, general manager.
“Other breweries near here still age some of their beer, but we age the weird ones,” White said.
The “weird” ones are harder to come by. Tequila and rum, for instance, are exported internationally, which costs more to ship with the extra distance and take even longer to arrive through customs. Dragoon gets its rum barrels from Puerto Rico, which requires a six-month wait list and a month delay for delivery.
Bourbon and whiskey barrels are American-based, making the cost cheaper and the delivery faster.
To White, creating weird flavors is an art. “It’s like selecting your own ingredient,” White said. “It’s another tool we have as brewers.”
Barreling these beers adds at least a day of labor. A normal batch usually takes three days to ferment. The three-day fermentation still applies for barrel-aged beer, but it takes an extra day to transfer the beer into the barrels.
The beer is transferred from the fermentation vessel into the barrel through a hose, allowing the beer to sit in the barrels for several months so it can extract flavors from the barrel.
“You’re making a product you don’t get to see for six, 12, 24 months at a time,” White said, which causes a delayed profit. Once the beer has fully matured, though, brewers are able to charge more because of its unique aging process, which evens out the playing field.
Prices range anywhere from $8 a bottle to $30, depending on the brand and what the brewery needs to cover the cost, according to Mike Figueira, bar manager of Tap & Bottle Tucson.
One of Dragoon’s newest barrel-aged additions is Lazarus, aged with a blend of wine, cognac and bourbon. Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company of Gilbert and SanTan Brewing Company of Chandler both make a tequila barrel-aged ale.
Fate Brewing Company in Scottsdale is now selling two barrel-aged brews. Its most recent creation is the Barrel Aged Droppin’ Beetz Saison, which is aged in a Chardonnay barrel for more than six months.
There are no barrel brokers based in Arizona, so a Colorado company, Rocky Mountain Barrel Company, distributes barrels to breweries throughout the state, including Dragoon, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in Gilbert, Wanderlust Brewing Company in Flagstaff and Superstition Meadery in Prescott.
During the past two years, the cost of barrels has risen from $50 each to about $200. This is due to a demand in barrel-aged beers and a shortage of barrels, according to Noah Steingraeber, “Lead Barrel Slinger” for Rocky Mountain Barrel Company.
“A lot of brewers have this Wal-Mart mentality, thinking they can call up and order anything they want,” Steingraeber said. “But it takes time to get these barrels, especially now that breweries are not only competing with other breweries, but with international companies, too.”
Scotland, for instance, has been buying up bourbon and whiskey barrels, Steingraeber said.
Brewers are still experimenting with the barrels, finding new blends to add to the character of a nice cold beer. Beer advocates, like Keene, are fond of their creativity.
“There is an element of the unknown to these products,” Keene said, adding, “I think the limited quantities and exclusivity of these beers makes them desirable much like a rare wine.”
Ultimately, Cryderman from Tucson says the liquor-beer combination works.
“I enjoy a good whiskey and bourbon along with a nice porter or stout,” Cryderman said. “So when it’s combined by the aging process, it’s something I can really dig.”
Spencer Higgins is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for a Word version of this story and hi-res photos.