Whether you prefer a tempting blonde, a refreshing redhead, or a dark brunette, you really can’t go wrong with a sexy, barrel-aged brew. Trust us. Wood is good.
By Betsy Andrews
Looking for a classy date drink? Try beer. The commercial brewskis you chugged in college won’t impress, but nowadays there are all sorts of sophisticated suds that will. Some of today’s sexiest brews are barrel-aged, like bourbon, cognac, or wine. Instead of going straight to the bottle from stainless-steel tanks, these beers sit in oak casks for weeks, months, or even years, where they pick up flavors that, if not entirely predictable, are strange and wonderful—not unlike what you’d want from your date.
Once upon a time, all beer was fermented and stored in wood, but since the age of industrialization, durable, sterile stainless steel has been the brewers’ material of choice. Beer makers striving for consistency were able to keep unwanted microorganisms out of the tanks, and didn’t have to worry about the metal affecting the beer’s flavor. But uniformity and neutrality are exactly what today’s makers of barrel-aged beers are brewing against; they’d rather each batch bring new adventures. In the process, these brewers are discovering that the yeasts and bacteria that thrive in oak can usher in some deliciously funky and sour flavors, resulting in beer that is particularly suited to pairing with food. And the wood itself enhances the beer’s taste: New oak imparts a tannic dryness—the same quality you get from big, mouth-tingling red wines; barrels once used to store chardonnay or cabernet add winelike dimension; and the ones that held bourbon? Those give dark beers a sweet, boozy depth. But be forewarned: The barrels and the space and time required to store them don’t come cheaply to brewers, so a 750-milliliter, cork-sealed bottle can set you back a couple of Hamiltons.
Let’s face it, guys: Not all girls enjoy the bitter punch in the kisser that hops deliver. Some of us want a little something nice that we can pucker up for; like Eve with her apple, we want fruit and acid. If that’s the case, then Russian River Brewing Company’s Temptation is your kind of beer. It’s aged in French oak chardonnay barrels, and the added help of some mischievous little buggers (the yeast Brettanomyces and the bacteria lactobacillus and pediococcus) means this wild and luminous blonde goes down lemony, bready, and darned near briny. Goes great with rich goat cheese. Allagash Brewing Company’s Curieux, a Belgian tripel (triple the malt, triple the pleasure) aged in old Jim Beam barrels, is sweeter and has more va-va-voom, but it’s no dumb blonde. The bourbon-tinged oak adds weight and complexity. It’s vanilla and spice all rolled into one; no surprise, it likes a messy rack of baby backs.
Europeans never completely abandoned the barrel. Belgium’s Rodenbach Brewery, for instance, has been dumping its sweet-and-tart red Flemish ales into floor-to-ceiling oak tuns in its cool, vast cellar for the past 130 years. The ciderlike Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is aged for 18 to 24 months, is pit-fruit-flavored and mucho suave. It’s a rip-your-sweaty-shirt-off-afterwork beer that’s acidic and refreshing. The easy and creamy Jolly Pumpkin’s La Roja is a tarted-up honey that’s unfiltered, aged in oak for two to ten months, then refermented in the bottle for a musty, fruity, down-to-earth appeal. It’s good with everything from pizza to hot cherry pie.
Great Divide Brewing Company’s Oak Aged Yeti is an imperial stout with a hopped-up character that gets all chilled out after some time in the woods. It’s aged with unused oak chips, so it’s roasty and toasty, but without the funk or boozy hit of old bourbon casks. It tastes clean, dark, and fruity, like a cold-brewed iced coffee—just the stuff to wash down chocolate cake. A portion of Allagash’s Odyssey is aged in new oak barrels. This tricked-up treat of dark wheat beer is like an adults-only caramel apple rolled in nuts. It’ll stand up to the richness of a thick filet mignon.