Just because it’s barrel-aged doesn’t mean it’s “better.”
Part of what makes beer so incredible is how so much flavor and complexity can be coaxed out of four simple ingredients: malts, hops, water and yeast. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to make a plea for a return to the Reinheitsgebot. Nontraditional brewing ingredients and methods are a great way to elevate and expand the beer experience. But it’s also important not to overlook the fundamentals.
Imperial stouts are one of those beer styles with an incredible pedigree. Big, bold, luscious, and chocolatey, imperial stouts tend to land in the top tier of indulgent brews coveted by beer aficionados along with equally intense offerings like imperial IPAs, barleywines and quadrupels. The best imperial stouts deserve this status: They pack a boozy punch featuring layers of malty flavors that unfold on the palate and linger long after. In some ways, the style is so massive, there’s almost nowhere left to go.
But in the ‘90s, brewers found a way to ratchet up the intensity even further: whiskey barrel aging. Led by Goose Island’s now legendary Bourbon County Stout, aging strong stouts in whiskey barrels can accentuate these beers’ boozy edges, buoying a stout’s already dessert-like notes with additional flares such as vanilla, spice and oak.
Two decades and thousands of new breweries later, barrel-aged stouts are some of the most praised beers on the planet. Take a glance down beer rating app Untappd’s list of the top rated American imperial stouts, and you’ll quickly notice a trend: The vast majority are barrel-aged (18 of the top 20, specifically). Based on those numbers, you’d think barrel-aged stouts are a serious upgrade. But though barrel-aged imperial stouts are clearly different, they certainly aren’t an “improvement.”
Yes, barrel-aging a stout can add an additional “wow” factor. But barrel aging in and among itself doth not a “wow” make. In fact, quite the opposite: Some barrel-aged stouts can be equal parts intense and intensely unimpressive for drinkers who reach a sort of barrel-aged tolerance.
Meanwhile, a world-class non-barreled imperial stout can wow you for reasons beyond simply taste: there’s also the appreciation that such complexity was produced without any parlor tricks. Not every beer has to be a heady experience, but working your way through an indulgent non-barrel-aged stout can actually be a rewarding mental exercise. If you believe that part of enjoying craft beer is an appreciation of the craft, unadulterated imperial stouts can do an incredible job of putting this craft front and center: maximum beer from very minimal ingredients.
This isn’t to say that barrel-aged imperial stouts can’t be amazingly crafted – and in a way that is awe-inspiring in their own right; however, if we are going to judge imperial stouts alongside their barrel-aged brethren – as rating sites like Untappd tend to do – it’s time to accept that barrel-aging doesn’t make a stout better, it just makes it different. And both varieties of stouts have their own rewards.