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Chicago's barrel-aged beer obsession

Why we can't get enough of these bold brews

By Kate Bernot

RedEye

November 14, 2013

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It was dark and cold at 3 a.m. on a March morning when Josh Galecki, 32, of Logan Square, arrived at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich., and already the pack of self-professed beer nerds snaked around the building, nearly 300 people deep. Galecki was prepared, though, having lined up in years past to get his hands on the brewery's coveted Kentucky Breakfast Stout, released at the brewery one day a year before a few very rare bottles hit store shelves.

This is the type of devotion that bourbon barrel-aged beers inspire. ("My wife now thinks I'm insane," Galecki added.) Left to rest for months inside used bourbon barrels, these beers have for decades been popular among craft beer devotees, but in the last two to three years, hype has reached staggering levels.

The 11th annual Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB), the country's largest event focused on wood-aged beers, will take place in Bridgeport on Saturday. A few years ago, the event took weeks to sell out. This year? Mere minutes.

"Demand doesn't seem to be dying down, but I don't know where you can go from here," said Chris Quinn, owner of Avondale craft beer store The Beer Temple. "I guess you could sell out FOBAB in 10 seconds next year."

Chicago sits squarely at the center of the modern barrel-aged beer frenzy. Goose Island Beer Co. practically invented the style in early 1990s with its Bourbon County Brand Stout, which continues to be a standard-bearer. South suburban Flossmoor Station Brewery also was a pioneer.

Taste a bourbon barrel-aged beer, said Quinn, and it's not difficult to find the reason for its popularity. "You don't have to sit there and pick out the subtle nuances," he said. "It kind of smacks you in the face with flavor."

Because the beer--traditionally a dark style like a stout--rests in used whiskey barrels for months, it absorbs some of the flavor of the spirit as well as the semi-porous wood. Charred oak, cherry and vanilla notes are common characteristics heightened by time in a bourbon barrel.

As more breweries get in on the trend, though, new styles emerge. The next wave of barrel-aging includes non-traditional styles such as pale ales and ciders, plus the use of rum and wine barrels.

At Evanston-based Temperance Beer Company--whose beers will be available in Chicago beginning next week--brewer Claudia Jendron looks forward to brewing a barrel-aged black IPA, as well as creating small-batch versions of the brewery's flagship beers.

"It will be nice when we start our barrel aging that we'll get these smaller, 10-gallon barrels that allow me to make a couple of one-offs of our beers," Jendron said. "Here's our porter with cherries; here's our porter with a ton more chicory. It's cool to do those experimentations."

As with any experiment, though, there are some risks for breweries, especially when it comes to barrel-aging new styles.

"It's a big jump to take, considering the cost-efficiency and time and effort," Jendron said. "It's kind of tricky, because you're taking beer out of its normal conditions and putting it into a barrel where you don't necessarily know what's been going on. Luckily, people have done enough barrel-aging that there are some guidelines."

It's precisely this risk-reward balance, though, that makes successful barrel-aged beers so coveted.

"They're trophies to some people, absolutely," Quinn said of beer collectors. "People are just really into the hunt itself and acquiring these beers."

Once a desirable bottle has been found, many collectors chose to keep the beers for months or years to allow the flavors to mellow and develop even further before opening.

Galecki, who estimates he has a cellar of at least 200 bottles, saves his rarest bottles for special occasions or for sharing with other beer obsessives. One of his treasures is a vintage, barrel-aged Dark Lord imperial stout from Munster, Ind.-based Three Floyds Brewing, of which only about 500 were produced. This winter, though, he thinks he'll finally have a reason to crack it open.

"My wife and I are having a baby in December and I thought, 'What better way to celebrate the birth than by opening this bottle?'"

kbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink