Entertainment Restaurants Bars

Chicago's barrel-aged beer obsession

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

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • 'Furious 7': At this point, you know, whatever
    'Furious 7': At this point, you know, whatever

    Muscular, perpetually mumbling bowling pin Dominic Toretto (Human Aggro Crag Vin Diesel) doesn’t just prefer Corona, the beach-branded standard of Mexican beer-flavored water. He won’t even consider trying a Belgian Trappist ale, widely regarded as being among the world’s...

  • '5 to 7' is hot and bothered
    '5 to 7' is hot and bothered

    Not long after hordes of viewers hungry for some good, clean (dirty) spanking action flocked to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a smaller, better movie comes along that actually contains, you know, passion between its characters.

  • 'While We're Young' is hilariously wise
    'While We're Young' is hilariously wise

    That’s so old-fashioned, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) remarks warmly when 20-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) say that they’re married. Then they add that their wedding took place in a water tower to the sounds of a mariachi band. And there was a slip...

  • Where do Emanuel, Garcia stand on the issues?
    Where do Emanuel, Garcia stand on the issues?

    Chicago's April 7 runoff election is looming, and there are plenty of people undecided about whether they'll hand Mayor Rahm Emanuel another term or go with the new guy—Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. So we've rounded up the top issues and where the candidates stand to...

  • McDonald's raising its minimum wage, but some say it's not enough
    McDonald's raising its minimum wage, but some say it's not enough

    McDonald's plans to raise starting wages by $1 above the local minimum at select restaurants, just one of the changes on tap as the world's largest fast-food chain tries to win back customers and fend off a union-backed effort to raise pay throughout the industry.

  • Teen who got controversial heart transplant dies in crash during police chase
    Teen who got controversial heart transplant dies in crash during police chase

    An Atlanta area teenager who said a heart transplant two years ago gave him a second chance at life died this week when he lost control of the car he was driving while fleeing police, according to police records.