Tiring of the same old flavors in your beer? The sight of 10 different IPAs on tap at the local growler joint filling you with ennui? Well, the world of barrel aging has your back—and if you're unfamiliar with it, prepare for a rather intense crash course if you attend The Little Woody beer festival this weekend.
Aging beer in barrels isn't anything new. Most sour beers, such as the wildly-flavored ales produced by Bend-based The Ale Apothecary, are stored in oak barrels for several months, offering ample time for wild yeast strains like Brettanomyces to engineer a second fermentation. But as craft breweries began hunting for new flavor profiles in the '90s, some began to age beers in whiskey or bourbon barrels, using the residual flavors instilled in the wood to add a darker, bolder touch to the beer inside. (Chicago-based Goose Island was one of the first, and its oaky, powerfully boozy Bourbon County Brand Stout is still a standard-bearer.)
Nowadays, Oregon is practically awash in barrel-aged beer. Breweries like The Ale Apothecary, Portland's Cascade Brewing Barrel House, and Tillamook's de Garde Brewing focus entirely on the genre, with Cascade maintaining a fleet of over 750 bourbon, whisky, rum, and wine barrels. In Bend, Deschutes commands a similarly large collection of barrels—using them both for intense dark beers like The Abyss and experimental wild ales like last year's Green Monster—but nearly every other brewery in town has at least a few barrels to play around with.
Twenty-three different companies are bringing barrel-aged goodies to The Little Woody this year, and unless you pack a spare liver for the journey, you're definitely not going to taste them all. (You might also go bankrupt in the attempt; these beers are both powerful and costly, with many tasters requiring multiple $1 tokens to enjoy.) Try out these highlights first:
La Gaule du Matin (Mazama Brewing): An easygoing peach-flavored sour ale aged in a port wine barrel. "The goal was that lactic tartness would brighten up the acid of the peaches," says head brewer James Winther, "which would complement the fruity funkiness of the yeast."
Sour Raspberry Wit (Deschutes Brewery): Another relatively easy sipper. "Really more of a summertime sour," as brewer Robin Johnson told The Source. This is a traditional wit soured with Brettanomyces yeast and aged on oak with raspberry puree. The results are "Light, tart and fruity with a clean finish," Johnson says.
Romanov (Bend Brewing Co.): A not-quite-so-sessionable Russian imperial stout that's been sequestered for half a year inside an Oregon Spirit Distillers bourbon barrel. Expect chocolate and roastiness to dominate your palate, and then expect an early bedtime once the 10.5% alcohol takes effect.
Bourbon Barrel Aged Bitch Stout (Wild Ride Brewing): Redmond's newest brewery has been aging its caramel/chocolate-heavy stout in Jack Daniel's whiskey barrels since right after opening in May. The resulting vanilla and oak flavors should add another level of complexity to what's already an exceedingly smooth beer.
The Little Woody Barrel-Aged Brew & Whiskey Festival
DesChutes Historical Museum, 129 NW Idaho Ave.
Fri., Aug. 29 5 pm-10 pm
Sat., Aug. 30 12 pm-10 pm
$10 for entry and taster glass; $1 per token