People argue over who first aged beer in barrels, but no one doubts the near alchemical magic wood has on liquid. Something special happens in those 53 gallon containers that transforms ordinary — or even great — beers into some of the world’s best. Currently, 7 of the top 10 beers on Untappd’s Top Rated Beers list have been aged in barrels.

What happens inside the barrels, exactly, has traditionally been the purview of whiskey makers.

Why Barrel Age?

According to Ger Buckley, 5th generation Master Cooper at the Jameson distillery in Midleton, Ireland, a significant portion of a whiskey’s flavor comes from wood. Because of this, the distillery lent barrels to a local craft brewery, to see what effect the barrels would have on beer. After getting the used barrels back, Jameson experimented by using them to finish their fully matured Jameson whiskey. So Jameson Caskmates was born.

With the success of their experiment, Jameson continued to support breweries in the U.S., shipping freshly-used barrels from their distillery in Ireland across the Atlantic, which the breweries then used to age everything from Mexican Hot Chocolate Stout (Fat Heads Brewing in Cleveland, Ohio) to Rye IPAs (Bale Breaker Brewing Company in Yakima, Washington).

Seventeen of the breweries that received barrels showcased the beers they produced in customized booths at the Jameson Caskmates Barrel-Aged Beer Garden, a unique activation built into one corner of the Great American Beer Festival.

Walking into the activation, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. A whiskey brand sponsoring a craft beer festival seemed odd, considering the rivalry between liquor and beer. But I shouldn’t have worried. The booths were fun and educational. Matt Naquin, Western Territory Manager at Parish, a Louisiana-based brewery that I highly respect, also lauded the company for its support and initiative.

“Partnering with Jameson has been an amazing experience,” he said. At his booth, Naquin poured Irish Coffee Stout, a creamy Jameson Barrel-Aged imperial stout. “They really treat us like family and I truly believe that their intentions are in line with their partners in the craft beer industry. Given the enormous size of their company compared to all of the partners, they act and share the same values as all of us.”

Beer for Every Season

Even though barrel-aged beers have been thought of as a winter treat — due to their heavy drink-by-the-fire taste — this isn’t always true. Increasingly, brewers are putting many different styles of beer into barrels and creating barrel-aged beer perfect for every time of year.

Winter

The best month for barrel-aged beer, hands down. Think dark and powerful. Reach for strong ales, barley wine, doppelbock, stouts, and porters.

Our pick: Fat Head’s Brewery, Wake The Dead.
Also great: Big Dog’s Brewing, Man’s Best Friend 002 and The Black Abbey Brewing, Substantiator

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Spring

As the sun starts to shine, it’s time to transition into something lighter. In spring, you want red ales, Maibocks, Marzens, and dry stouts. Pair them with franks at a baseball game.

Our pick: Captain Lawrence, Trans-Atlantic Red.
Also great: Foolproof Brewing, Irish Rhode and River Horse, Brewing Craic.

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Summer

Beat the heat with lighter beers served ice cold. These are the days for lagers, blonde ales, and IPAs.

Our pick: Great Divide Brewing Company, The Smoothness
Also great: Green Flash Brewing, Golden God and Bale Breaker, Ossifier Red Rye IPA

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Fall

Think light jackets, crunchy leaves, and Oktoberfest. Sit on a patio with something interesting: pumpkin beer, fruit beer, and smoked beer are all worth the risk. Oh, and wet-hop IPAs are in season and fantastic.

Our pick: Heavy Seas Beer, Loose Cannon
Also great: River Horse Brewing, One Score And Two Years Ago and Revolution Brewing, Jamo-Nilla

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Getting barrels into the hands of more small, independent craft breweries can never be a bad thing. Jameson is pushing forward the magical world of wood-aged beer by helping the little guy afford barrels that are traditionally expensive and hard to find (much like coveted hop contracts).

Through “Love Thy Neighborhood” and their Block Party Tour of the U.S., Jameson has been celebrating neighborhoods across the nation, with a particular focus on those gems that make each neighborhood unique. And ultimately, there’s no better cultural hub to support than independent craft breweries.