Barrel-aged beers have become popular in recent years—and with good reason. Just as spirit-makers are well aware, contact with wood imparts unique character and flavors. Prior to the advent of modern stainless steel brewing equipment, all beers made centuries ago spent time in wood vessels. Sometimes referred to as slow brewing, the aging process takes longer and since time is money, expect to pay a bit more. Here are three establishments in Downtown Las Vegas that are committing a portion of their portfolio to beers aged in oak.
Banger Brewing got into the barrel-aging business shortly after christening its brewing equipment in late 2013 and has celebrated each of its anniversaries with a barrel-aged release. As you walk into the brewpub located on the first floor of Neonopolis, you can’t miss the stacks of oak barrels on display. They are not just part of the décor, but a work in progress. Banger currently has eight bourbon barrels and four wine barrels (two Cabernet and two Chardonnay) filled with beer. The different types create vastly different flavors.
“The wine barrels add very subtle, delicate flavors, which we use for lighter beer styles such as saison or red ale with a low ABV and all our wine barrels are inoculated with sour bacteria,” says Michael “Banger” Beaman, owner and head brewer. “The bourbon barrels impart very distinct, in-your-face oak flavors and alcohol, so for those we go with something big like a stout, black IPA, brown ale, porter—something with a lot of flavor and high ABV—which balances out the strong flavors of the oak and bourbon.”
Banger ages its bourbon barrel beers three to four months if it’s a new barrel and six to nine months if it’s being used a second or third time. Wine barrel beers sit for six to nine months and after six months are taste-tested every few weeks till deemed ready.
Hop Nuts, on Main Street just south of Charleston Boulevard, began aging in wood soon after it opened in early 2015. Its imperial stout was aged for six months in a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel, which brewer Carlo Zoppi reports was so popular it sold out in less than two months. Such a well-liked beer calls for a repeat performance, and the brewery is doing just that. Currently, another imperial stout is aging and should be ready in a few months. During the aging process, the taste of the beer changes and, upon kegging, is blended with fresh beer till it attains the flavor they are seeking: not too hot (too much bourbon flavor) and not too dry (too many oak tannins, a bitter-tasting substance found in bark).
Zoppi adds, “Barrel aging for us was a natural progression after establishing our staple beers and seasonals. We recently obtained a climate-controlled warehouse. The added space will allow for more barrel-aging, and we have three more bourbon barrels on the way.”
Atomic Liquors, located on Fremont between 9th and 10th streets, is renowned for being Las Vegas’ oldest freestanding bar, but it is also a magnet for beer fans attracted to its refined craft selection. With arguably the finest craft selection in Downtown, Atomic serves more than 100 different beers, 35 to 40 percent of which are barrel-aged, and is frequented by fans of sour beer. When general manager Rose Signor moved here from Seattle she brought her love of sour beers with her.
“I’ve always liked vinegar flavors, and the first sour beer I ever had was Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Belgian beer with a balsamic vinegar taste to it,” Signor says. “I never knew beer could taste like that.” She endeavored to educate her clientele on the uniqueness of this beer style and within four months of reopening Atomic in 2013 brought in Petrus Red, a mixed fermentation ale with cherries.
“This beer is a beginner sour, not a punch-you-in-the-face sour, as the sweetness of the fruit helps round it out.” She said that initially her customers kept sending the sour beers back and it took quite a bit of convincing people that it was OK for beer to taste like that. The wine drinkers were more willing to accept a sour beer than the Bud Light devotees. Part of the education of Signor’s clientele has been the sour beer festivals she has hosted since 2013, which after pouring 10 beers and attracting 30 people in the inaugural year has grown to become one of the largest sour fests around with the 2016 edition bringing in 75 beers and 400 attendees.
How Barrel-Aging Works
Step 1: Pick the beer/barrel combo
Specific styles of beer work better with certain barrels. Wine barrels match up nicely with lighter brews while bourbon barrels are ideal for darker and higher-alcohol beers. Some of the batch is kept in reserve for possible blending later, before kegging or bottling the barrel-aged beer.
Step 2: Age
After the beer has fermented it is placed in an oak barrel to age and kept in a stable temperature that is not too cold and not too hot for four months to two years. Usually a barrel is good for two or three uses.
Step 3: Add wild yeast (sours only)
If a sour beer is desired, wild yeast strains such as Brettanomyces or Pediococcus and Lactobacillus bacteria are added, which grow while the beer is aging and contribute moderate to strong sour flavors. Lactobacillus is the mildest of the three.
Step 4: Sample
Once the beer has matured for the desired aging time, the brewers begin tasting it every few weeks until they determine it is ready to be bottled or kegged.
Step 5: Smooth (or not)
If the beer is too dry or has too much of the barrel’s original flavor characteristics, some of the beer that was held in reserve can be blended in to smooth it out before serving.