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Is mead barrel-aging the next big thing in beer?

Mead-makers have begun to age more of their creations inside oak, opening up a whole new world of flavor possibilities for brewers.
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Wren House mead barrel aged beer

Wren House Brewing Co.’s Who Hit John Grand Cru is a tasty beer with an uncommon twist: The 13% ABV imperial porter was aged in barrels that once held a special cuvee version of Berry White, a renowned raspberry and white chocolate mead from Superstition Meadery in Prescott, Arizona. That’s right: mead barrels. And after experiencing the subtle but unmistakeable kisses of fruit and honey those casks lent to the beer, we had to know if there were more mead-aged beers out there.

The short answer: yes, but there aren’t many. Wren House may be the most prolific mead barrel-aging brewery in the country. Along with the aforementioned Who Hit John, it’s also released Beeline (a barleywine) and Deuce of Clubs (an imperial stout), both of which spent time inside used raspberry mead barrels. A blueberry mead barrel-aged version of Olmec, Wren House’s chili-spiced imperial stout, is even on the way.

But Wren House is far from the only brewery to have made use of mead barrels. Years ago, Allagash Brewing Co. released BAM, a Belgian dark strong ale aged in barrels from New England mead-makers Artesano and Maine Mead Works. Virginia’s Port City Brewing dropped a mead-aged version of Tidings, its holiday Belgian golden ale, in 2016. A year before that, Kane Brewing Co. launched Apiary, a honey saison aged in barrels from Melovino Meadery, a New Jersey-based mead-maker.

“It turned out great,” founder Michael Kane says of the brew. “It had a unique flavor. It gave us a little bit of sweetness and those unique florals from the honey. We would do it again if we were able to secure barrels on a regular basis.”

This seems to be the biggest hurdle in mead barrels becoming a go-to vessel for beer-aging. Unlike with most spirits and some wines, mead-making isn’t a process that requires the use of oak casks. But more mead-makers are expanding their repertoires and experimenting with aging their own creations in used barrels, and the flavor combinations those casks make possible, says Superstition owner Jeff Herbert, should encourage more brewers to seek them out.

“I think we all know what bourbon barrel-aged beers taste like and they’re awesome,” Herbert says. “Same thing with wine. But when you think of the world of mead and the diverse flavor range within it, there are just so many possibilities. Any kind of melomel with fruit, or a spiced mead, or a mead that was already aged in another barrel—all of those are going to be different than what wine can do or what spirits can do. When you get involved with that range of flavors, you’re going to offer the brewery world something new. It opens up a world that just never existed.”

Wren House head brewer Preston Theony—obviously a fan of mead barrels—agrees, saying the barrels that once held fruit mead (aka melomel) can be especially useful to brewers.

“Adding fruit directly to a beer is great, but there’s just something really subtle about what these barrels add,” he says. “You get that true jamminess without adding any actual fruit to the beer. We’re not changing the viscosity or the integrity of the base beer at all.”

There is one drawback: The brewers who use these barrels don’t really know what they’re going to get, or how long it’s going to take to get it. While brewers generally know what to expect from beers that have rested in bourbon or wine barrels at two months, six months or a year, there isn’t much empirical evidence on mead barrel-aging. Herbert recalls a barrel of Blue Belgian, a mead made with Belgian dark candi sugar and blueberries, that he sent to O.H.S.O. Brewery in Phoenix a few months back. Brewers told him that for weeks, the mead and the beer in the barrel—Brimley’s Breakfast Stout, an oatmeal milk stout—refused to mingle. But then: “All of a sudden, they pulled the nail and something greater was created,” Herbert says.

“It’s a blank slate; we’re in uncharted waters when we’re doing this kind of thing,” Herbert says. “But as few of these as there are, and as well-received as they have been, I definitely think this will be an exciting new thing that makes the craft world a little more interesting.”

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