Over a Barrel

 The new lineup from Innis & Gunn, faux barrel brewers (Photo: Innis & Gunn)

The new lineup from Innis & Gunn, faux barrel brewers (Photo: Innis & Gunn)

The Scottish brewery Innis & Gunn was caught up in some marketing hyperbole October 17 when they issued a press release that touted their new releases including “the original Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale,” as well as a “rum barrel red beer” called Blood Red Sky. Both of these brews are prominently labeled “Barrel Aged.” And that has some beer lovers hopping mad.

In the wine world, “Barrel Aged” means a wine has spent time in an oak barrel - no size of barrel is generally specified but the wine was clearly aged in a barrel. Some wineries also release “oak aged” wine, which is a sneaky way of implying barrels were used without really having to use them. Many inexpensive wines get a good dose of oak flavor through the inclusion of oak staves, oak chips or even sawdust thrown into stainless steel tanks with the wine.

 Chips of toasted French oak sold to home winemakers and brewers 

Chips of toasted French oak sold to home winemakers and brewers 

This is, it turns out what Innis & Gunn are doing, putting pieces off oak barrels into large vats with the beer so some of the oak flavor is leeched out over a short time period. Innis & Gunn argues that unlike producers who add oak chips to their product, the fact they are using oak chunks that, at some point in their life were part of a barrel makes the beer “barrel-aged” rather than simply “oak-aged.” Innis & Gunn founder and master brewer Dougal Gunn Sharp told an incredulous group of questioners that because they have also used the phrase, “putting the barrel into the beer,” this bit of verbal subterfuge is as clear as, well, ale if not water.

In fact, Innis & Gunn has made truly barrel aged beer in the past. In fact, that's how the company was created, when Sharp was asked to age some beer in a few barrels, then empty it and return the barrels to a distiller that wanted to provide an ale finish to a whisky. Things have come nearly full circle since then, when Sharp realized the beer from the original whisky barrel was pretty good too and started making it in small batches. But now, that original concept has gotten a bit twisted I think. On his website, Sharp asks, "what if, instead of putting beer in the barrel we put the barrel in the beer?" But hoisting a bottle of beer that still says "Barrel Aged" on the label, I'm not sure most consumers get the subtle twist.

When asked by trade journal The Drinks Business what the industry take was on all this, Buster Grant, chairman of the Society of Independent Brewers, said, “There are a significant and growing number of brewers using wood for their beers and most of these do indeed use barrels to store the beer and mature it. While there is no UK Industry definition for barrel-aging or oak-aging, I believe that most brewers would use barrel-aged to say a beer has been inside a barrel, and wood-aged to say that the named wood has been inside the beer. This means it is for the consumer to choose which they prefer.”

I could go on at length about the barrel aging process for wine - it’s about a lot more than getting a bit of oak flavoring into wine - but the bottom line here seems to me to be an effort to make the situation, if not the beer, a little cloudy. And if a craft beer gets away with this, what is next for wine?

I need a drink.