For beer geeks—loosely defined as those of us who eschew light American pilsners and plan our shopping trips around which store has the best selection of pretty much anything else—two trends are clear: seasonal brews and barrel aging. Both have as much to do with exclusivity as they do tasty beer.
Seasonal beer, as the name would suggest, is brewed to complement a particular time of year, often using seasonal ingredients. You’ve got your Biere de Mars (March) and Mai Bocks (May bocks) in the spring, your Oktoberfests and pumpkin beers in the fall, and, of course, your summer and winter ales. In addition to the fact that many craft brewers put out decidedly delicious seasonals, the limited-time-only offerings are to beer geeks what chum is to sharks.
“What happens is that seasonals create an underground buzz,” says Clyde Burney, Southern Wine & Spirits’ vice president of beer. “People look for strange and unusual concoctions from brewers they know and like.” San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing puts out a seasonal dubbed Brekle’s Brown Ale that Burney highly recommends trying at Sept. 10’s Desert Hops Beer Festival. “It’s a fucking great product,” he says. “It’s a big, brown malty ale. It will run until Christmas and that will be about it.” New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Hoptober Golden Ale combines über-trendy hoppiness with three-month availability (August through October), and you’ll be able to try it at Desert Hops, along with dozens of other limited-time beers.
Barrel aging is just that: storing beer in barrels—typically those that have already been used for liquor or wine—and waiting for magic to happen. That can take months or years. The beer sometimes picks up microfauna (a.k.a. bacteria) that kicks off interesting kinds of fermentation, and picks up flavors characteristic of whatever was previously in the barrel. “It’s kind of funkifying your beer,” says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association, a craft brewing industry trade group.
Barrel aging has become so popular that the Great American Beer Festival, the Olympics for professional brewers, had five aged-beer categories that drew 227 entries in its 2010 competition. Firestone Walker Brewing’s Velvet Merkin rose above the fray to win a gold medal last year in the Wood and Barrel-Aged Beer category.
While that seasonal won’t be pouring at Desert Hops, the brewery’s barrel-aged Double Jack IPA will. “It’s one of the best IPAs I’ve ever drank,” Burney says. “It’s a showstopper.” Another recommendation from Burney: Innis & Gunn’s Original Cask or Rum Cask beers, aged in oak barrels previously home to whiskey or rum. “If you are a whiskey drinker or a rum drinker, you must try these,” he says.
If you don’t know where to start with this barrel-aging stuff, GABF’s list of medalists (GreatAmericanBeerFestival.com) makes a good cheat sheet. Keep at it long enough and you’ll be able to work the term “firkin” into your bar banter, at which point you’ll have crossed the threshold into beer geekdom.