Barrel aging 101: How wood, wine and whiskey can drastically change your beer

Beer festivals often offer drinkers a little bit of everything, but a unique one in Dallas promises barrels of fun -- literally.

Festicle, coming to Deep Ellum on Nov. 4, is a niche event that focuses primarily on barrel-aged brews, with some added sour and wild ales. Think that means the offerings will be monotonous? Think again.

Barrel aging offers brewers a creative outlet with endless possibilities. Affected by factors including the type of barrel and how it's treated as well as the meticulous process of blending, flavors are as wide-ranging as colors on a spectrum.

Festicle is BrainDead Brewing's signature North Texas Beer Week event and takes place in the brewery's adjacent parking lot. In advance of the event, we spoke with head brewer Andrew Huerter to learn the basics of barrel-aging and what folks can expect to find at the festival.

Why do you age beer in a barrel?

"Complexity and depth of flavor would be the main reasons," Huerter says. "I can't think of many reasons beyond that."

Huerter remembers the first barrel-aged beer he ever tried: an Irish stout from St. Louis' Morgan Street Brewery back in 2006. He'd read about the big, booze-forward flavors that barrel-aged beers promised and says it was nothing short of his expectations.

"Caramelly, vanilla, charred oak, layered on top of a big, roasty stout," Huerter describes it. "It was everything I had dreamt about."

What characteristics do barrels impart on a beer?

These brews are known for making a statement, but each one's flavor depends on the type of barrel it's aged in, how long it stays in the vessel and how fresh the barrel is. Brewers primarily use American or European oak barrels, Huerter says, and the way they're treated will vastly change a beer's profile.

Bourbon barrels, for example, are one of the most common types for aging beer. American oak vessels can be used only once for bourbon, and they're typically charred in the assembly process, which gives beers sweeter vanilla, caramel and coconut notes. In contrast, French oak wine barrels are usually steamed and toasted when built, he says, which lends more nutty flavors to the brew.

Beyond the wood, whichever spirit or wine varietal was previously in the barrel has the biggest impact on flavor. Brewers use barrels from liquors including tequila, rum and scotch as well as wines like cabernet, chardonnay and port.

What are the most common beer styles to be put in barrels?

"Usually anything strong for the initial fill," Huerter says, such as imperial stout, porter or barleywine. However, brewers may also age wild and sour ales that thrive on bacteria that develops over the life of the barrel.

The longer beer stays in a barrel, the more pronounced the flavors become, Huerter says. (He'll barrel-age a beer anywhere from a couple of months to more than a year.) Longer aging also generally leads to higher alcohol content, as the beer yeast feasts on sugars left in the vessel.

What is blending and why do brewers do it?

According to Huerter, every barrel-aged beer BrainDead releases is blended from several barrels. Blending is a common practice in the industry for a simple reason: Every barrel is unique, which means each beer's flavor profile will be different after aging, even if the original liquid came from the same batch. The best way to get a consistent flavor is to combine the liquid from multiple barrels after the aging process is complete.

Andrew Huerter (pictured), head brewer at BrainDead, will barrel age a beer from a couple of month to more than a year.

What should you expect at Festicle?

In addition to dozens of barrel-aged and funky beers, attendees can expect live music and tacos from several local restaurants. A $40 ticket ($50 at the door) buys entry and 12 beer samples. You can also purchase individual tacos ($3), bottomless tacos ($20) and vintages of BrainDead's barrel-aged specialties Hammer of the Gods and Bent de Garde ($10). VIP tickets ($120) include early entry, bottomless tacos and three bottles of each of the aforementioned beers.

Nov. 4 from 2 to 6 p.m. at BrainDead Brewing, 2625 Main St., Dallas. $40-$120.

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