Column: When the beer sits in the wood

Dougal Sharp of Innis and Gunn

Dougal Sharp of Innis and Gunn - Credit: Archant

Brewers are restless people, constantly developing beers with new and challenging flavours. This is especially true with beers that have been aged in wood.

You may think there’s nothing new in this. Don’t some brewers still serve their beers from wooden casks? The answer is yes – but “beers from the wood” have taken on a new twist in recent years when the casks have originated in the whisky and wine industries.

Metal containers for beer only became the norm from the 1920s onwards. But the wooden casks that preceded metal had always been scrupulously scoured before use to avoid any “woody” flavours in the beer.

But today a number of brewers are using wood in an entirely different way. They are deliberately allowing aromas and flavours of wine, whisky and Cognac to impregnate their beers.

The change was driven by the success of the Edinburgh company Innis & Gunn with its Oak Aged range of beers. The first beer came about by accident. Dougal Sharp, the head brewer at the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, was asked by whisky maker William Grant, as an experiment, to supply some beer that would be run into whisky casks, left for a few weeks and then thrown away, to be replaced by fresh whisky.

Dougal was astonished to hear some time later that workers at Grant’s distillery had refused to dispose of the beer but were drinking it as it was so delicious. Intrigued, Dougal found his beer had picked up distinctive flavours of vanilla and oak from the casks.

As a result, Dougal left Caledonian and set up his own company, Innis & Gunn in 2003. His first beer, Oak Aged Original, was a sensation. He now sells beer all round the world and has added beer aged in rum and Irish whiskey casks. Original owes its distinctive character to being aged in white oak casks bought from the American Bourbon industry: the beer rests in the Bourbon vessels for 30 days and then continues to age in other vessels to mellow.

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The full range of Innis & Gunn beers is widely available in most supermarkets:

Nearer to home, the Chiltern Brewery near Aylesbury has just released a special version of its Bodgers barley wine that has been aged in whisky casks. The beer is normally 8.5 per cent alcohol but this version weighs in at 8.9 per cent. Head brewer Tom Jenkinson tells me he uses all English ingredients to make the beer – Maris Otter pale barley malt and Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings hops – and ages the beer for five months in old whisky puncheons. The beer is then bottled but kept in the brewery cellars for a further seven months before it’s released.

The beer that emerges from this long maturation process is dark gold in colour and has profound aromas and flavours of oak, vanilla, creamy malt and orange fruit. It has a big warming kick of whisky in the mouth and a slow-burn finish in which creamy malt, whisky notes, oak and tart fruit meld together.

Only 500 bottles have been produced so I would place an order without delay. As the beer is bottled conditioned with live yeast it will continue to age and mature for several years. I’ve put one in my cellar and will do my best not to touch it for a year or two. A 500ml bottle costs £10.95: You could make the short journey and pick some up at the brewery shop in superb Chilterns countryside: Nash Lee Road, Terrick, between Aylesbury and Wendover, Bucks HP17 0TQ.

In London, the family-owned Fuller’s brewery in Chiswick produces an annual vintage aged in wooden casks from the Scottish malt whisky industry and Cognac and Armagnac in France. When head brewer John Keeling produced his first Brewer’s Reserve, aged in whisky casks, he ran into trouble with HM Revenue & Customs, who accused him of the ancient malpractice of “grogging”, which means illegally increasing the strength of beer with the addition of distilled spirit.

There was no whisky in the casks but the spirit had soaked into the wood, which added fractionally to the strength of the beer. John had urgently to tweak the beer with the addition of a small amount of pure water to satisfy the tax people. The most recent edition of the range is Brewer’s Reserve No 4, which is aged in wooden casks from the most famous producer of Armagnac, Comte de Lauvia.

The 8.5 per cent beer is a blend of two Fuller’s regular beers, Golden Pride and Extra Special Bitter. It has rich velvety malt, powerful notes of plums, sour cherries and vanilla on the aroma and palate, and a long warming and fruity finish. A bottle costs £7.75 or a case of 12 £70:

Do sample some of these remarkable beers, testimony to the great skills of modern brewers.

*Follow Roger on Twitter @RogerProtzBeer. He edits the Good Beer Guide.