More malt! More hops! Higher alcohol! Big beers are, well, big. Everything is amped: with more malt comes higher alcohol and increased sweetness. And with these heavier, hopping is necessary; the increased bitterness keeps brawny beers in check. 

Assertive beers work incredibly well in these vessels: a chocolate and coffee-hewn imperial stout is easily complemented by the depths of a bourbon barrel, creating a refined, booming beer. Barley wines, so named because their booziness is more akin to wine than beer, derive their own complexities through a more complex grain recipe, longer boil time (to caramelize the sugars), and a subtle, necessary hop bitterness.

“Barley wine was the beer that started us down this path to big beer,” begins Matt Kenny, brewmaster at Tatamagouche Brewing Co. Their Giant Beer series highlights their boozier brews: Russian Imperial Stout, Chai Tea Wheat Wine, and an American Barrel-Aged Barley Wine: which, when young, says Kenny, you can almost think of it as a triple IPA. As it matures it changes, and while the booziness never strays, it softens into honeyed malt or chocolate liqueur-like notes. 

Ageing in wood provides more complexity and depth too, while further softening these big beers. “If the barrels are still wet, you know you are going to get a lot of the spirit or whatever liquid was in the barrel before,” explains Kenny. So a beer tends to spend less time ageing in a newer barrel. Second-use barrels (already stripped of their intense flavours by previous brews) require longer rest times for more nuance.

The nature of these ales is one of communal enjoyment: they’re meant to be shared, to be enjoyed over a hearty feast with friends. Barley wines have the impeccable ability to pair throughout, alongside roasts, stews, pot pies, even a cheese course: use en lieu of port. Imperial stouts are ideal with dessert; think Black Forest Cake, brown butter cheesecake or even more stout.

Lauchie Maclean, the president of Glenora Distillery, has worked with many local breweries, including offering up used, heavily-charred Glen Breton barrels. Charring the vessels before filling them is important as the fire helps open up the wood to better allow interplay with the whisky, while the caramelization of the wood’s natural sugars teases out notes of vanilla or coconut, which comes through in the finished spirit. After being drained and sent to the breweries, the char has a secondary use as a filter; it removes impurities as the beer rests while taking on those characterful notes of the single malt that called the barrel home for eight-plus years.

In contrast to sessionable summer slammers, big beers boast big ABVs. In the cold months, the warmth and sweetness of robust malty, chocolatey beers and the familiar flavour of bourbon oak are a welcome fuel to help power through. Barrels, however, do not necessarily give us big beers. As Kenny of Tatamagouche explains of their Weird Beer series: “if the barrel is neutral and just a vessel for ageing, you have the ability to put something more delicate in, which is generally what we do with our sour and mixed fermentation beer.” Less about achieving a big spirit or oak character, this use offers a space where cultures can grow and alter the fermentation.

Jake Foley of Sourwood Cider echoes this sentiment. Foley sees barrels as a haven for the bacteria that do the heavy lifting: chewing through long-chain sugars creating an intricate finished product. “You pick up flavours that you just can’t get from fermentation. It’s an interesting vessel as it’s porous, so you get to have a home for microbial matter—bacteria, yeast and all that good stuff—you promote a good environment that lets the bugs go to work on your cider.” 

Foley often uses Niagara and Californian wine barrels, which at first add plenty of colour and character. He sees nothing wrong with the loss of the barrel’s initial character once it becomes more neutral. “It’s more about a house for the bugs. Once you have [the barrel], I think to get rid of it—for the style of cider I like to make—is kind of crazy.”

Foley’s ciders go beyond simple apple flavours, focusing more on wild fermentation, cellaring, and microbial activity. Determining if a cider’s ready is simple: repetitive tasting. In a barrel, ciders can go from vinous to vinegar quickly. It’s a matter of staying on top of tasting, knowing when to make the call, and properly packaging it. 

Foley’s cellar has barrels of cider that have been stored for longer than a year while others are being pulled after three months. Timing has a lot to do with the individual ciders and the ecosystem within and around the barrel. “Cellaring requires the right acidity, CO2 levels, and temperature for stability,” says Foley. Barrel ageing means all the sugars get chewed up. 

Despite the delicacy of a cider or Saison, or the burliness of an imperial or sticky ale, barrels and cellaring help round the final product. When used, barrels become as important as the grains, hops, or type of apples. A little oak can go a long way, and a lot can push too far. It takes a deft hand to balance wood with restraint while still showcasing its complex traits. There’s a reason that this archaic vessel still holds sway. Try a pint and see for yourself.