Despite being at the mercy of so many capricious elements, one overarching consideration consumes brewers more than any other: consistency. Never mind if the barley was battered by drought in any given year, the hops ravished by downy mildew or the water tainted, the beer must remain unflinchingly true to taste and texture.
While the wine industry embraces the seasonal narrative – with all its frustrating incongruities – brewers tread a much more alchemistic path as they strive for uniformity. Once ubiquitous, the ancient practice of barrel ageing beers found itself on the nose in the latter part of the 20th century – an anathema to the engineering triumphs of mechanised brewing. Barrels were too unpredictable, too volatile, too expensive, too risky.
But with the frenetic proliferation of craft beer in Australia, now comes an emerging intrigue in provenance: a narrative arc from farm to bottle that offers an evocation of the brewing journey. And this has intrepid brewers nationwide dusting off the casks and throwing caution to the ever-shifting winds.
An impossible genre to define, there has nonetheless emerged a clique of clichéd descriptors when it comes to barrel-aged brews: ‘funky’, ‘barnyard’, ‘woody’, ‘dank’ and ‘smoky’ being particular well worn. In truth these beers span the full kaleidoscope of form and ferment – from pale lagers to obsidian ales, each imbued with the indelible touch of the wood that encased it.
La Sirène (
lasirene.com.au) in Melbourne remains the most dedicated and exciting barrel-aged brewer in the nation, driven by its intrepid chief Costa Nikias. The brewery’s What The Farmhouse Dry Hopped Barrel-Aged Wild Ale (try saying that after a mug of rum barrel imperial stout) is indicative of Nikias’ passion for agitating at the frontiers: taking a pale, wild and open fermented ale with cutting acidity and leaving it in French oak for 13 months to mellow and grow in complexity.
The beer is then dry hopped for some serious apricot and peach-like aromatics to complement its juicy, slightly sour body, and packaged in a handsome 750ml bottle that rightly suggests it as a serious rival to your go-to pét-nat.
Fellow Victorians Fury & Son (
furyandson.com.au), made up of father and son brewing team Reno and Andrew Georgiou, equally embrace the creative symbiosis of wood and wort, working with used chardonnay, whisky and pinot noir barrels ‘infected’ with Brettanomyces to create luscious and intriguing beers that are redolent with unique character and the tell-tale musk of the yeast. The Funk The Pain Away Peach Barrel Aged Farmhouse Ale – piqued with the minerality of the chardonnay barrels and lip-smacking peaches sourced from the brewery’s front yard – is a rapturous combination, but only available when the fruit is in season. More readily available, but no less intriguing, is the Imperial Stout. It’s aged in used shiraz barrels and although clocking in at 10% ABV, is much gentler than you’d imagine, with supple tannins, exotic vanillin hints and a rewarding viscosity.
Not to be outdone by its southern neighbours, Sydney’s Hawkers Brewery (
hawkers.beer) has fashioned a bold name crafting many an intriguing Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine. Don’t let the nomenclature of the latter ruffle you: the term ‘barley wine’ was traditionally used in previous centuries to denote the generous booze content of these unique beers, not untypically north of 13% – a result of the dense malt layers.
Pouring dark leather brown with a generous creamy head, the molasses-rich and tobacco bourbon notes fold immaculately into the beer, making for a memorable drinking experience.
Similarly, the label’s Bo & Luke Down Under imperial stout packs a mighty punch, with the rye and barley malts smoked on beechwood and mesquite before the beer is laid to rest in used rum barrels for six months. The stewed fruit aromatics and smoke conjure up memories of German Christmas markets – but at 13% ABV is much less innocent than the beguiling nose suggests.
While most ales can be brewed, packaged and put to market in a matter of weeks, barrel aging requires a little patience and a lot of pot-luck. And the laborious process invariably means more exclusive batches that are heavier on the hip pocket. But seek and you shall be rewarded for, as the ancient proverb goes: the truth lies at the bottom of the barrel.