Wood and beer go way back. We, as humans, have put beer into wooden vessels for centuries... pretty much since we've been using harvested lumber. Before then we would use various clay pots, but wood has stood the test of time simply because it is magical. It's a combination like peanut butter and jelly, biscuits and gravy, or rice and beans... they just belong together. Not only do they belong together, but when they are combined they create something bigger than themselves. We may be a new, young brewery but we're continuously trying to allocate more beer and resources into our wood cellar because it's something we're very passionate about. As our cellar grows we want to take you guys with us on this journey, and try to share our experience of barrel aging techniques and what the barrels offer to the beer. This is where we feed some of that curiosity that we've been telling you to crave.
Before we get into current barrel projects, a little background behind barrel aging is due. After giving tours through the barrel room for a few months we've heard an array of questions.
"Do all of your beers go into barrels?"
"Why do you age beers in barrels?"
"How long will they stay in there?"
As with most things in life, the old saying, "There's more than one way to skin a cat," applies here as well. Our responses to these questions are not necessarily the right answer, but it's our answer for now. We hope to learn as we grow and continue to evolve our techniques to fit what works best for us.
Firstly, no, not all of our beers go into barrels. In fact, none of our core year-round beers spend time in barrels. Even Reclaimed Rye, which ages on lightly toasted French oak, doesn't age in a barrel. The wood aging for that beer is done in the form of wood spirals in our brite tank just before packaging. The barrel aged beers are very limited production and done in small batches.
We age beer in wood for a few possible reasons:
- beer maturation (no fermentation)
- flavor exchange with the barrel
- extended mixed-culture fermentation
Our barrel room is essentially split in half. The clean side and the dirty side. When we say clean, we mean there's no fermentation happening. The beer has already fermented but is maturing in a barrel to develop flavors by resting on wood over time. We mainly use French and American oak barrels in our wood cellar depending on what flavors we're after or what kind of wood structure we think will work best with the beer. Hungarian oak is another common barrel option that is kind of like a hybrid between American and French.
Right now in our clean side we've got 9 Willet bourbon barrels. Bourbon barrels, by definition, are charred American oak barrels and can only be used once by the distiller which makes them great for us and relatively easy to acquire. Four of these barrels came straight from the distillery, we gave them a rinse, let them dry, and then we filled them up with a roughly 10.5% imperial stout. However, the other five went to a farm in New Hampshire and spent three months filled with maple syrup before they came home to the brewery. These residual sugars left in the barrel that have melded with the oak and bourbon character make these quite a magical aging vessel for our stout. Naturally, these five maple bourbon barrels were also filled the same imperial stout.
Preliminary tasting evaluations are extremely promising. The beer is tasting great however it definitely needs more time in the barrel. With these clean beers we look for some of the oak flavors to come through, mainly in the form of vanilla, and we also look for structure. Tannin extraction, and sugar and alcohol maturation over time will make the beer have a clearer flavor journey for your palate. Like any good story, a sip of this beer should tell you the tale of its time in the barrel with a beginning, middle, and end. We're guessing this beer will be ready in the Spring after somewhere around 8-14 months in the barrel... it could be quite a nice first anniversary beer.
The dirty side of the barrel room is a bit different than the clean side. In all of these barrels there is active fermentation happening, making each barrel its own individual ecosystem with its own population dynamics and unique flavor development over time. The organisms responsible for the fermentation are different than our normal yeast strains as well. We use a house blend of Brettanomyces for most of our barrels right now, and a few of them already have been or will be inoculated with lactic acid producing bacteria such as Lactobacillus or Pediococcus. This is how sour beers are made - the more mature cousins to our Athena which also uses Lactobacillus. Unlike the clean side, however, not all these barrels will progress as linearly. We monitor each individual barrel and over time we will notice differences between each one that will make it unique. As the barrel collection grows, we're essentially building our crayola box of 64 colors. The flavors we taste will tell us what's happening inside or what the barrel may need. From time to time the flavors will tell us that barrel is ready. When that happens, we'll take the few "colors" that work well together and blend them to make a beer, treating it with fruit or spice is pretty common at this point too. It's key to note that this is when the beer is made - when we blend. The beer isn't made on brew day, or when it goes into barrels, but it's made when we blend because that is when we are creating something and moving towards presenting it. Up until that point, we're just creating a color palate to work with and acting as shepherds to our wondering flock of barrels.
Right now we don't have any beers ready from our sour program. Sour beers can take anywhere from 8 months in the barrel to three years! With that said, here are a few projects we do have planned:
- two savignon blanc barrels with a blonde base beer will see an addition of ~320 pounds of Pearson Farms peaches
- one cabernet barrel with a blonde base beer will receive ~250 pounds of Rhonda's blueberries
- we have one barrel of Athena refermenting with 100 pounds of Balaton cherries
- three bourbon barrels of souring Reclaimed Rye
- and the most likely candidate for soonest release:
one willet barrel of 100% brett fermented Reclaimed Rye with blackberries
This is only a handful out of the barrel collection we have. The rest are still finding their way. We'll keep you updated as our curious minds wonder down the delicious road of barrel aging.