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Specialty Aged Beer

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Specialty Aged Beer is a catch-all term for any aged beer other than one of the few defined styles where aging is a characteristic of the style. Aging in itself changes the character of a beer, even in a nonreactive vessel. However, some beers are now aged in unlined oak vessels, which contribute unique character to the beer. These wood-aged beers are sometimes then blended to achieve the desired flavor.

Contents

History of Aged Beer

Brewers have long known that while some beers, especially lighter Session beer styles, are best drunk fresh, stronger beers with more alcohol and more hops can keep well for long periods, and some even develop more interesting or complex characters as they age, as wine does.

In addition, before modern refrigeration became available, brewers in most areas had a limited time in which the temperatures were appropriate for fermentation. This led to the brewing of beers that could be laid down so that beer would be available during the hot summer months. Often these beers were aged in cool caves; this led to the tradition of lagering and eventually to the isolation of lager yeast strains that were more suited to this type of conditioning.

While distillers and winemakers have depended on the character of oak for generations, the use of wood flavors in beer is a twenty-first century innovation. Although beer has been fermented and stored in wooden vessels for centuries, the vessels were usually coated with brewer's pitch or a similar substance to prevent the wood flavors from leaching into the beer.

Then in 2002, William Grant and Sons, the distillers of Glenfidditch whiskey, wanted to age a special whiskey in barrels that had been flavored with ale. They brewed a special ale that was then aged in unlined wooden casks.

The beer was intended to be discarded after maturation. However, the workers at the distillery quickly began saving it for their own use, and eventually it was launched commercially by Innis & Gunn Brewery. Since that time, many other craft brewers have begun experimenting with wood, especially oak.

Aging Beer for the Home Brewer

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Competition Styles

The BJCP defines a single style for wood-aged beers. The GABF, on the other hand, recognizes a wide range of styles of aged beer, both with and without a wood-aged character.

BJCP Style Guidelines

Wood-Aged Beer

22C. Wood-Aged Beer Vital Statistics
BJCP Style Guideline Definition (2004)
IBUs: varies SRM: varies; often darker than base style OG: varies; typically above average FG: varies ABV: varies; typically above average
Aroma: Varies with base style. A low to moderate wood- or oak-based aroma is usually present. Fresh wood can occasionally impart raw "green" aromatics, although this character should never be too strong. Other optional aromatics include a low to moderate vanilla, caramel, toffee, toast, or cocoa character, as well as any aromatics associated with alcohol previously stored in the wood (if any). Any alcohol character should be smooth and balanced, not hot. Some background oxidation character is optional, and can take on a pleasant, sherry-like character and not be papery or cardboard-like.
Appearance: Varies with base style. Often darker than the unadulterated base beer style, particularly if toasted/charred oak and/or whiskey/bourbon barrels are used.
Flavor: Varies with base style. A low to moderate wood- or oak-based aroma is usually present. Fresh wood can occasionally impart raw "green" aromatics, although this character should never be too strong. Other optional aromatics include a low to moderate vanilla, caramel, toffee, toast, or cocoa character, as well as any aromatics associated with alcohol previously stored in the wood (if any). Any alcohol character should be smooth and balanced, not hot. Some background oxidation character is optional, and can take on a pleasant, sherry-like character and not be papery or cardboard-like.
Mouthfeel: Varies with base style. Often fuller than the unadulterated base beer, and may exhibit additional alcohol warming if wood has previously been in contact with other alcoholic products. Higher alcohol levels should not result in "hot" beers; aged, smooth flavors are most desirable. Wood can also add tannins to the beer, depending on age of the cask. The tannins can lead to additional astringency (which should never be high), or simply a fuller mouthfeel. Tart or acidic characteristics should be low to none.
Overall Impression: Varies with base style. A low to moderate wood- or oak-based aroma is usually present. Fresh wood can occasionally impart raw "green" aromatics, although this character should never be too strong. Other optional aromatics include a low to moderate vanilla, caramel, toffee, toast, or cocoa character, as well as any aromatics associated with alcohol previously stored in the wood (if any). Any alcohol character should be smooth and balanced, not hot. Some background oxidation character is optional, and can take on a pleasant, sherry-like character and not be papery or cardboard-like.
History: A traditional production method that is rarely used by major breweries, and usually only with specialty products. Becoming more popular with modern American craft breweries looking for new, distinctive products. Oak cask and barrels are traditional, although other woods can be used.
Comments: The base beer style should be apparent. The wood-based character should be evident, but not so dominant as to unbalance the beer. The intensity of the wood-based flavors is based on the contact time with the wood; the age, condition, and previous usage of the barrel; and the type of wood. Any additional alcoholic products previously stored in the wood should be evident (if declared as part of the entry), but should not be so dominant as to unbalance the beer. IF THIS BEER IS BASED ON A CLASSIC STYLE (E.G., ROBUST PORTER) THEN THE SPECIFIC STYLE MUST BE SPECIFIED. CLASSIC STYLES DO NOT HAVE TO BE CITED (E.G., "PORTER" OR "BROWN ALE" IS ACCEPTABLE). THE TYPE OF WOOD MUST BE SPECIFIED IF A "VARIETAL" CHARACTER IS NOTICEABLE. (e.g., English IPA with Oak Chips, Bourbon Barrel-aged Imperial Stout, American Barleywine in an Oak Whiskey Cask). The brewer should specify any unusual ingredients in either the base style or the wood if those characteristics are noticeable. Specialty or experimental base beer styles may be specified, as long as the other specialty ingredients are identified.
Ingredients: Varies with base style. Aged in wooden casks or barrels (often previously used to store whiskey, bourbon, port, sherry, Madeira, or wine), or using wood-based additives (wood chips, wood staves, oak essence). Fuller-bodied, higher-gravity base styles often are used since they can best stand up to the additional flavors, although experimentation is encouraged.
Commercial Examples: J.W. Lees Harvest Ale in Port, Sherry, Lagavulin Whisky or Calvados Casks, Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, New Holland Dragons Milk, Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, MacTarnahan's Oak-Aged IPA, Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout, Greene King Olde Suffolk Ale, Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Special Reserve, many microbreweries have specialty beers served only on premises often directly from the cask.


GABF Style Listings

Wood- and Barrel-Aged Pale to Amber Beer

14A. Wood- and Barrel-Aged Pale to Amber Beer
GABF Style Listing (2007)
A wood- or barrel-aged beer is any lager, ale or hybrid beer, either a traditional style or a unique experimental beer that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. This beer is aged with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood and/or what has previously been in the barrel. New wood character is often characterized as a complex blend of vanillin and unique wood character. Used sherry, bourbon, scotch, port, wine and other barrels are often used, imparting complexity and uniqueness to beer. Ultimately a balance of flavor, aroma and mouthfeel are sought with the marriage of new beer with wood and/or barrel flavors. Sour wood-aged beer, dark wood-aged beer (>20 SRM or 40 EBC) or higher alcohol wood-aged beer (>5% a.b.w. or 6.25% a.b.v.) of any color should be entered in one of the appropriate categories or subcategories shown below. The brewer should explain the special nature of the beer to allow for accurate judging. Comments could include: type of wood used (new or old, oak or other wood type), type of barrel used (new, port/ whiskey/ wine/ sherry/ other), base beer style or achieved character. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 3-5% (3.75-6.25%)
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): 4-20 (8-40 EBC)


Wood- and Barrel-Aged Dark Beer

14B. Wood- and Barrel-Aged Dark Beer
GABF Style Listing (2007)
Any classic style or unique experimental style of dark beer can be wood or barrel-aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. For purposes of this competition entries in this subcategory should have color greater than 20 SRM or 40 EBC, but contain alcohol less than 5% a.b.w. or 6.25% a.b.v. This beer is aged with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood and/or what has previously been in the barrel. New wood character is often characterized as a complex blend of vanillin and unique wood character. Used sherry, bourbon, scotch, port, wine and other barrels are often used, imparting complexity and uniqueness to beer. Ultimately a balance of flavor, aroma and mouthfeel are sought with the marriage of new beer with wood and/or barrel flavors. Examples of wood-aged classic styles include but are not limited to Irish-style dry stout, robust porter, brown ale or other dark beer styles. Dark fruited or spiced beer would also be appropriately entered in this category. Sour wood-aged dark beers, and higher alcohol wood-aged versions of classic styles and higher alcohol beer styles with >5% a.b.w. or 6.25% a.b.v. (such as imperial stout, old ale or experimental styles for example) should be entered in other categories or subcategories shown below. The brewer should explain the special nature of the beer to allow for accurate judging. Comments could include: type of wood used (new or old, oak or other wood type), type of barrel used (new, port/ whiskey/ wine/ sherry/ other), base beer style or achieved character. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer

15. Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer
GABF Style Listing (2007)
Any strong classic style or unique, experimental style of beer can be wood or barrel-aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood. For purposes of this competition entries in this subcategory should contain greater than 5% a.b.w. or 6.25% a.b.v. They may have any range of color or other characteristics. This beer is aged with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood and/or what has previously been in the barrel. New wood character is often characterized as a complex blend of vanillin and unique wood character. Used sherry, bourbon, scotch, port, wine and other barrels are often used, imparting complexity and uniqueness to beer. Ultimately a balance of flavor, aroma and mouthfeel are sought with the marriage of new beer with wood and/or barrel flavors. Examples of wood-aged strong beer styles include but are not limited to imperial stout, double porter, triple pale ale or any other strong beer style that meets the criteria for alcohol content. Sour higher alcohol wood-aged beer (>5% a.b.w. or 6.25% a.b.v.) of any color should be entered in the appropriate category shown below. The brewer should explain the special nature of the beer to allow for accurate judging. Comments could include: type of wood used (new or old, oak or other wood type), type of barrel used (new, port/ whiskey/ wine/ sherry/ other), base beer style or achieved character. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer

16. Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer
GABF Style Listing (2007)
A wood- or barrel-aged sour beer is any lager, ale or hybrid beer, either a traditional style or a unique experimental beer that has been aged for a period of time in a wooden barrel or in contact with wood and has developed a natural acidity induced by bacteria or other microbe. This beer is aged with the intention of imparting the particularly unique character of the wood, the micro flora present in the wood and/or what has previously been in the barrel. New wood character is often characterized as a complex blend of vanillin and unique wood character. Used sherry, bourbon, scotch, port, wine and other barrels are often used, imparting complexity and uniqueness to beer. Usually bacteria and/or “wild” yeast fermentation contributes complex esters and results in a dry to very dry beer. Ultimately a balance of flavor, aroma and mouthfeel are sought with the marriage of acidity, complex esters and new beer with wood and/or barrel flavors. The brewer should explain the special nature of the beer to allow for accurate judging. Comments could include: type of wood used (new or old, oak or other wood type), type of microbial contribution, type of barrel used (new, port/ whiskey/ wine/ sherry/ other), base beer style or achieved character. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Ale or Lager Aged from 12-24 Months

17A. Ale or Lager Aged from 12-24 Months
GABF Style Listing (2007)
These are beers aged for over one year, and up to two years. A brewer may brew any type of beer of any strength and enhance or change its character with extended and creative ageing conditions. Entries in this category will exhibit a very broad range of characteristics; these beers might have high hopping rates, roast malt content (in some darker examples), high alcohol content and/or complex herbal content. Some acidic beers may develop attributes that are enhanced with extended ageing. These beers should exhibit positive attributes of ageing, such as slight oxidation, roundness or smoothness in styles where appropriate. These beers should not exhibit unbalanced attributes of ageing, such as over-oxidation or stale character, or unpleasant yeast characteristics such as excessive autolysis. For the purposes of this competition, beers in this category may be aged in any type of food grade vessel, although beers that exhibit attributes resulting from ageing in wood should be entered in the wood- and barrel-aged categories. The brewer should provide the classic style or experimental nature of the beer being aged, as well as the kind of material in which the beer was aged or other information describing the ageing process. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Ale or Lager Aged from 25-48 Months

17B. Ale or Lager Aged from 25-48 Months
GABF Style Listing (2007)
These are beers aged for over two years, and up to four years. A brewer may brew any type of beer of any strength and enhance or change its character with extended and creative ageing conditions. Entries in this category will exhibit a very broad range of characteristics; these beers might have high hopping rates, roast malt content (in some darker examples), high alcohol content and/or complex herbal content. Some acidic beers may develop attributes that are enhanced with extended ageing. These beers should exhibit positive attributes of ageing, such as slight oxidation, roundness or smoothness in styles where appropriate. These beers should not exhibit unbalanced attributes of ageing, such as over-oxidation or stale character, or unpleasant yeast characteristics such as excessive autolysis. For the purposes of this competition, beers in this category may be aged in any type of food grade vessel, although beers that exhibit attributes resulting from ageing in wood should be entered in the wood- and barrel-aged categories. The brewer should provide the classic style or experimental nature of the beer being aged, as well as the kind of material in which the beer was aged or other information describing the ageing process. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Ale or Lager Aged from 49-72 Months

17C. Ale or Lager Aged from 49-72 Months
GABF Style Listing (2007)
These are beers aged for over four years, and up to six years. A brewer may brew any type of beer of any strength and enhance or change its character with extended and creative ageing conditions. Entries in this category will exhibit a very broad range of characteristics; these beers might have high hopping rates, roast malt content (in some darker examples), high alcohol content and/or complex herbal content. Some acidic beers may develop attributes that are enhanced with extended ageing. These beers should exhibit positive attributes of ageing, such as slight oxidation, roundness or smoothness in styles where appropriate. These beers should not exhibit unbalanced attributes of ageing, such as over-oxidation or stale character, or unpleasant yeast characteristics such as excessive autolysis. For the purposes of this competition, beers in this category may be aged in any type of food grade vessel, although beers that exhibit attributes resulting from ageing in wood should be entered in the wood- and barrel-aged categories. The brewer should provide the classic style or experimental nature of the beer being aged, as well as the kind of material in which the beer was aged or other information describing the ageing process. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -


Ale or Lager Aged More Than 72 Months

17D. Ale or Lager Aged More Than 72 Months
GABF Style Listing (2007)
These are beers aged for over six years. A brewer may brew any type of beer of any strength and enhance or change its character with extended and creative ageing conditions. Entries in this category will exhibit a very broad range of characteristics; these beers might have high hopping rates, roast malt content (in some darker examples), high alcohol content and/or complex herbal content. Some acidic beers may develop attributes that are enhanced with extended ageing. These beers should exhibit positive attributes of ageing, such as slight oxidation, roundness or smoothness in styles where appropriate. These beers should not exhibit unbalanced attributes of ageing, such as over-oxidation or stale character, or unpleasant yeast characteristics such as excessive autolysis. For the purposes of this competition, beers in this category may be aged in any type of food grade vessel, although beers that exhibit attributes resulting from ageing in wood should be entered in the wood- and barrel-aged categories. The brewer should provide the classic style or experimental nature of the beer being aged, as well as the kind of material in which the beer was aged or other information describing the ageing process. Beer entries not accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): -
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): -
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): -
Bitterness (IBU): -
Color SRM (EBC): -