Choices Beer Brewers Make during the Aging Process
Beer brewers can’t always set a packaging date on the calendar ahead of time for barrel-aged and wood-aged beer. More often than not, the beer decides when it’s ready. Barrel-aged and wood-aged beers need to be tasted periodically to assess their flavor progression. This process can take months or even years.
Checking the beer’s oxidation
As if choosing barrel types and pairing beer styles wasn’t enough for brewers to think about, they also have to take into consideration the level of oxidation that occurs while the beer is aging.
As beer ages in wooden barrels, the staves — long slats that make up the barrel — absorb a portion of the beer, and an additional amount may evaporate over time, which can leave a void. At this point, brewers have a few options:
Top off their barrels with more beer.
Fill the void with CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas.
Allow their beer to age and develop naturally and not do anything about the void in the barrel.
Deciding whether to let the beer sour
In addition to considering oxidative qualities of the aging beer, brewers also have the option of allowing their beer to sour during maturation and aging.
Sour beers have been a part of brewing reality throughout the millennia, but sour flavor in beer was typically considered a negative. In days of yore (whenever yore was), brewers did what they could to avoid letting their beer go sour, but now it’s considered a viable option. Many see sour beers as a sort of sociable middle ground between adventurous beer drinkers and adventurous wine drinkers. Tart and tangy beers can be either subtle or intense, but they’re always brisk and refreshing.
Blending beers from two or more barrels
One of the unsung talents among today’s barrel-aging brewers is the ability to assess the progression of the beers’ aging in the cask. Furthermore, very often these brewers must skillfully and artfully blend the contents of two or more barrels to achieve the perfect balance of flavor and beer intensity before packaging it. Blending is one of the greatest challenges brewers face, but it may also be one of their greatest accomplishments when they get it right. Becoming a master blender takes more than skill; it usually takes years of experience, too.
Blending of beer is done all the time in the brewing industry at the corporate level. Big brand-name beers are routinely blended to ensure consistency from batch to batch. Blending beer at the artisanal level is done to develop unique and complementary flavors between two or more barrels of beer, as well as to smooth over a rough edge or two.