People are falling in love with barrel-aged craft beer. What is it about these exotic brews that has craft beer enthusiasts asking for more? Certainly, it’s the rich, malty character – but also, it’s the taste imparted by wooden barrels once used for spirits and wine — like bourbon, red and white wine, tequila and gin barrels. 

How it started

Aging beer in barrels is a relatively new trend and most craft breweries are jumping in to showcase their barrel-aged brews. While barrel-aged beers are a relatively small portion of most breweries’ output and sales, the alluring brews have gained a lot of attention.

For centuries, wooden barrels (mostly oak), were used to store liquids before metal containers were perfected, and not much stock was put into the flavor wood imparts. The modern-day trend to use wood as flavor is credited to Goose Island Beer Company’s Greg Hall, who in 1992, aged an imperial stout in used bourbon barrels. When Hall debuted his creation at the Great American Beer Festival, people went crazy for his unique offering, dubbed Bourbon County Brand Stout. The trailblazing creation started a trend.

Bringing it local

Catawba Brewing, one of Western North Carolina’s leading breweries, ventured into barrels as a “purely economical way to store beer,” said Catawba co-owner Billy Pyatt.

In 2000, the year-old brewery couldn’t afford big stainless steel tanks, so the ever-resourceful co-owner Scott Pyatt found some Jack Daniels wooden barrels that were being discarded. 

Scott stored Catawba’s Firewater IPA in some barrels as an expedient means of storage. 

The result was amazing, and the Catawba Brewing barrel-program was begun.

Now 18 years running, Catawba Brewing’s barrel program is North Carolina’s oldest barrel program.

The pedigree of the barrel

Bourbon, the truly “All-American spirit,” is enjoying a wave of popularity, especially since Millennials are into cocktails and mixology. The making of bourbon, requires that the barrels can only be used once; then discarded. Many are sold as ‘furniture’ (like table bases) or go to breweries jumping on the barrel-aging bandwagon. 

While a lot barrel-aging is done in much sought-after bourbon barrels, breweries are experimenting with cabernet, merlot, white wine, tequila and gin barrels.

“This becomes a little more art,” said Billy Pyatt. “The barrel program allows us to be creative and tap into different people. It’s a chance to be a little upscale and try some unusual things.”

Expanding the barrel program

After Catawba Brewing installed its new 30-barrel brewhouse in the Morganton production facility in 2016, the previous 10-bbl. brewhouse was moved to the new Charlotte tasting room and brewing facility in 2017. Before Charlotte opened, Catawba stored most of its barrel-aging brews at the Asheville South Slope location. Some of the barrels remain at Catawba South Slope and add to the ambience of the chandeliered Rickhouse back bar.

After opening the Charlotte tasting room and brewery, Catawba added the Barrel Room adjacent to the tasting room, and seriously delved into the creative art of barrel aging. With space to store up to 200 barrels along the walls of the room, Catawba Charlotte’s head brewer Dave Cobb, is having some brewing fun leading Catawba’s barrel-aging program. Cobb brews other Catawba flagship beers, too, but the barrel program lets him try new ideas.

Creating The Barrel Room

As rustic weddings and receptions became popular, more events have been held in brewery settings. Catawba’s Asheville South Slope Rickhouse back bar, with its chandeliers and barrels is well-used for events. This popularity encouraged the Catawba folks to make the Charlotte 4,300 sq.-ft. Barrel Room into an event space, designed by Catawba creative director Mary Mayo. It’s well-suited for weddings and receptions, with a beautifully-carved private wooden bar, chandeliers and a dedicated bride’s dressing room. Plus, attendees love seeing the hundreds of barrels lining the walls, each aging some future cask taste treat. 

What’s ahead on the brewery side

Catawba has released several of its new tasty barrel brews, a barrel-aged Scotch ale and a tequila barrel-aged DIPA (available in cans), and Red Zombie, a barrel-aged version of its popular White Zombie witbier aged with sour cherries (available in bottles) and a barrel-aged King Don’s Pumpkin Ale (on tap while supplies last).

Cobb has more taste treats coming soon, including a ‘Wine-O-Stout,’ aged in merlot barrels, a saison blend, aged in white wine barrels and a barrel-aged Barleywine. 

“The taste of the saison aged in white wine barrels is so elegant,” Mayo said.

These creations are pleasingly rich — and might be akin to “nectar of the gods” in the taste palates of craft beer enthusiasts. 

When asked if there are any limits on what can be barrel-aged, Billy Pyatt said that Catawba’s philosophy is to “do barrel-aging with a purpose.”

And, what about Catawba’s wildly popular Peanut Butter Jelly Time specialty ale? Has the brewery tried to barrel-age that brew?

“Not yet,” Billy said with a smile. 

Asked about Catawba Brewing Company’s 19 years of success, Billy said, “It’s crazy. We dream big.”

Catawba Brewing will celebrate its 20thanniversary in 2019. Cheers — and have fun tasting all the barrel-aged treats.

Catawba Brewing Company is family-owned by Billy, Jetta and Scott Pyatt. The main production facility is in Morganton, with a boutique brewing system in Asheville and production facility and barrel program in Charlotte. Asheville tasting rooms are at 32 Banks Ave., on Asheville’s South Slope, and at 63 Brook St., in Biltmore Village. Catawba Brewing also owns Palmetto Brewing in Charleston, South Carolina. Visit www.catawbabrewing.com.

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