If you’ve been to a beer dinner, you’ve likely endured a heartfelt plea for beer’s place at the dining table (“It goes just as well with food as wine, sometimes even better!”); and if you’ve double-sipped your way through a “beer versus wine” dinner, you’ve undoubtedly tasted a refined stein that handily outwits the stemware. But to approach the emerging batches of wine-barrel-aged beer, it’s best to set aside all of the beer/wine rhetoric. The trend isn’t about elevating brew or converting wine drinkers; it’s simply about harnessing vino’s lovely subtleties to bring another taste profile to the table.
“It’s pre-experimental because no one has nailed down the flavors, so we’re flying by the seat of our pants.” That’s Sam Rose, cellarman at Asheville, N.C.’s Highland Brewing. The story of Highland’s foray into wine barrel aging is fairly common: A local winery — in this case, the Biltmore Estate Winery — can only use its barrels two or three times before the tannins dissipate. With barrels too weak for wine but still imbued with vinous nuances, local wineries are tossing them to nearby breweries.
Here the experimenting begins. There’s no “right” barrel-beer combination, but there are some fledgling rules of thumb: The bold tannins and rich dark fruit flavors of red wine barrels marry best with malt-heavy beers like stouts, porters and barleywines, while white wine barrels, like Chardonnay, impart complementary oak and tropical fruit flavors well-suited for pilsners, pale ales and tripels. As with any barrel-aging project, the purpose isn’t to steal beer’s spotlight, but to brighten it.
“One thing you have to remember is that the barrel-aged beer’s flavor is never going to be standardized,” says Rose. “You’re going to see variation from one barrel to another, just like wine. And that’s the interesting thing, the variation.”