When Lakefront Brewery released Black Friday V in 2019, it certainly created buzz. The imperial stout was bottled from barrels that had been hiding in Lakefront’s barrel room for more than five years. Brewers generally let stouts age in a barrel anywhere from six to 18 months. Five years is a comparative eternity.
Five years also ensures a beer big on barrel character. The result of V’s lengthy slumber was an amazingly complex and rich stout with plenty of barrel flavor that was, in this critic’s opinion, worth the hefty $100 price tag.
In April, Lakefront Brewery is releasing Beerline Barleywine after having aged it in rye barrels for three years.
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Extreme Barrel Aging
The art of extreme barrel aging didn’t end with Black Friday V. In early February, Lakefront released BA Rendezvous, which spent six years in brandy barrels. And before that, they created Weihnachtsbockbier, a doppelbock aged in whiskey barrels for more than six years.
With a barrel slumber of just three years, Beerline, available only in bars on April 1, is a relative rookie. Lakefront is selling the bottles to its accounts for $1, and suggesting a $20 price for patrons as a way to help out local establishments.
Usually Lakefront’s long-term barrel aging happens because the brewery has some spare barrels on hand, said Tyler Senz, a brewer who oversees the Lakefront barrel room. “We’ll overproduce on a batch and we’ll experiment. We only sell 80% of our biggest barrel-aged beers of the year and we keep 20% for aging. The rhyme or reason is basically when we have an opportunity to release it. It could depend on the season or maybe not. I’ll test the barrel for taste and if we think it’s up to par, we’ll release it.”
Barrel aging is inherently risky, and each barrel has its own personality. A lot of the content of a barrel is lost over time to evaporation – a phenomenon known in whiskey circles as “the angels’ share.” (For example, Lakefront head brewer Luther Paul says that Black Friday V barrels lost 25% or more of the original stout placed in them.) One of the biggest downsides to the lengthy aging is that some beers don’t make the cut and end up being dumped.
“There’s a certain limit to time that beer does well in an aged barrel,” explained Paul. “You do see some things tend to decline after three years, and with a lot of beers we’ve released after those three years we didn’t pick everything and didn’t use all of the barrels.”
Added Senz: “A lot of risk goes into aging beer longer in the barrel. There are times I have to dump a few, but that’s part of the barrel game. I like that it’s not perfect.”
Plenty of Barrels to Choose From
Lakefront’s barrel room resides in a warehouse on Hubbard Street on the edge of Riverwest. It’s currently filled with nearly 500 barrels. Black Friday brews take up residence, as do future releases that include a lambic and a fruited sour or two.
“Once we discovered this would be a good thing, we now plan to produce more than we sell at the time (of a beer’s release) and we can put some in hibernation,” said Paul.
Added Senz: “I get to look at these barrels all the time and you never know when they’ll get called up to see if the aging did them good. When I try it and it’s a home run, I have that ‘I’d say this is ready’ kind of feeling.”