In the craft beer scene, anything barrel-aged is going gangbusters these days. Wood slowly imbues liquids with all manner of nuance and complexity, so it’s easy to understand why it would appeal to the high-minded connoisseur. But even for the casual drinker, the chill of autumn signals a sensible time to explore these elegant expressions. The types of beer that stand up to months of rest in the barrel tend to be fuller in body, lengthier in flavor — the type of grog that warms your bones, and soothes your soul. And they don’t have to be intimidating, nor excessively rich on the palate. For a prime example of barrel-aged accessibility, seek out S5 Oak Aged Belge Saison, from Transmitter Brewing in Long Island City.
Although the most popular varieties tend to involve ex-bourbon barrels, aged beer can spend time in all sorts of vessels; used rum puncheons, sherry casks, rye, and scotch tuns are obvious examples. In the case of S5, bottled earlier this year, Transmitter elected to sit their Belgian-style ale in old red wine barrels. Before it slumbered for close to a year, a wild yeast strain was added to the mix, insuring that the liquid inside evolved gently with time. After it’s departure from the barrel, the delicate ester-rich fruit notes, typical to a saison, remained in tact, but they arrived in a blanket of funky oak. The 7.1% A.B.V beer finishes with a pleasing degree of peppery dryness, not unlike a proper Chablis.
In the name of unyielding experimentation, Transmitter is reluctant to repeat the same recipe twice. In the case of S5, this is something of a tragedy; when the bottles are gone, they’re gone for good. Yet with the limitless flavor combinations inherent to barrel-aging, you’re certain to encounter something specifically suited to your palate. Head over to their LIC tasting room, just under Pulaski Bridge, any weekend afternoon to pick up one of their hand-bottled 750 ml one-offs. For a rare taste of the S5 on draft, Blind Tiger Ale House in the West Village is currently offering eight ounce pours for $8.
And when you’re ready to dive head first into the barrel, take a pilgrimage to Chicago this weekend for the Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer. The annual gathering is the country’s largest celebration of all things oak. The judging traditionally includes a handful of breweries from the Tri-State area, some of whom have a strong chance of emerging victorious in the Windy City.