Winemakers usually rotate their barrels—replacing a portion of old with new, and/or using barrels that have held one type of wine for another, depending on the type of wood and its characteristics. Brewers are learning to do this as well, since a barrel’s ability to influence beer flavor diminishes each time it is used. The most prestigious French chateaux claim to use only new oak for their wines, but the reality is that even “first growth” Bordeaux will rarely stay in new oak for the entire period of its aging (about two years). Usually these wines will be racked off to older, more “neutral” or “passive” barrels at some point before bottling.
Another common practice in the wine world is to employ used Chardonnay or white wine barrels for red wines, since they have not picked up the stronger tannins and pigments that used red barrels have, and may better affect new wine flavor.
Most brewers new to the art don’t seem to rotate barrels much at present—they simply use them once, as in the bourbon business, or kept them indefinitely for the same beers. Cilurzo, however, after using barrels for a given number of “vintages,” turns them into barrels for his Consecration beer, which is spontaneously fermented in the barrel.
Barrel and Oak Cask Fermentation
Inspired by the Burton Union system at Marston’s Brewery in Burton-Upon-Trent, England, the Firestone Walker Brewing Co. of Los Olivos, CA formulated a plan to ferment a portion of its beer in the barrel. Brewmaster Matt Bryinldson uses 40 new American oak barrels from World Cooperage of Lebanon, MO to ferment the brewery’s flagship Double Barrel Ale. Blow-off tubes are attached to the bungholes of the barrels, where the wort is fermented for seven days, and then moved to stainless steel tanks for cold stabilization. The beer is blended with tank-fermented beer to create the final product, 15 to 20 percent of which is barrel-fermented.
Brynildsnon has used this system for ten years, and is a firm believer in it. “The barrels add a lot of character to the beer. With new oak, a profound oak character is imparted on the beer, with fruity notes and some sulfur,” he says. Brynildson says that he tasted other barrel-aged beers, many of which were seriously oxidized, before starting his program. After that experience, he went straight to the winemakers for help in learning how to use oak effectively in fermentation. Now he purges the barrels with CO2 before filling them, and none remain empty more than 24 hours. Each barrel is used about 20 times for fermentation before being rotated out of the system. “The bonus to this [fermentation] program,” says Brynildson, “is that we can’t afford to give space up for cellaring. It’s a huge incentive to get it in barrel.”
For all the oak that it uses, however, Firestone Walker has made only one truly barrel-aged beer so far, its 10th Anniversary Ale, released in October 2006. This hugely complex beer was made with 100 percent oak fermentation, and then aged nine months in barrel. Using a technique usually employed for reserve wines, only 30 barrels from the 80-barrel batch were selected for the beer. Brynildson plans to create a beer “solera” system in the future, similar to that used to make port wine, in order to blend old and new barrel-aged beers.
Meanwhile, at the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, CO, brewmaster Peter Bouckaert both ferments and ages a number of different beers in oak barrels and larger foudres of 60 and 130 hectoliters. Bouckaert, who once worked for the Rodenbach Brewery in Belgium, makers of the classic sour oak-aged ales, began using oak at New Belgium around 1997. He employs only used wine barrels made of French oak, inspecting each one first. “We treat and inoculate barrels depending on their condition of arrival,” Bouckaert says.
Bouckaert uses the wood and the bacteria it harbors to achieve flavor complexity. “I want to create a balance between lactic and acidic, and some of the related esters in the beer,” he explains. New Belgium’s signature barrel-aged product, La Folie, is blended from many barrels and packaged in champagne-style bottles. It is a very complex beer—fruity and sour with a unique champagne-like effervescence, reminiscent of the lambic beers of Belgium.
Bouckaert’s barrel program is only a small part of the brewery’s total production, however, which reached over 300,000 barrels in 2005. “It’s peanuts in terms of the whole product,” he admits.
Barrels vs. Chips
What’s better for beer—barrels or chips? If it’s oak flavor you want in your beer, there’s no faster way to get it than to add oak chips. Because of the greater surface area of the beer exposed to wood in this way, oak chips are much more efficient than a barrel in this respect. They are also considerably cheaper! With the high cost of new wine barrels (currently around $800 for a 225-liter French oak barrel), winemakers have long tried to find substitutes, including chips, shaving and retesting the inside of barrels, and “inner staves”—a framework of new oak pieces inserted into old barrels. However, as winemakers have learned, these short cuts have their disadvantages. Not only is the flavor extraction apt to be harder to monitor (and easier to overdo), but chips and their like also provide nothing in the way of the slow oxidation that barrels do to enhance taste.
This is a crucial point, because wood aging is different from wood flavoring. As beer sits in the barrel, it is slowly exposed to oxygen in the wood as well as woody flavor compounds. This will greatly affect the texture of the beer, its overall intensity and mouthfeel, in a way that adding chips doesn’t.
Vinnie Cilurzo makes only one beer with chips added—every 23rd batch of his strong ale Damnation. He’s careful about how long the chips sit in the beer, however (usually about 10 days). Sometimes, Cilurzo says, he gets used barrels from wineries that have inner staves inside. “They have given us way more oak than we needed,” he claims. Cilurzo also doesn’t use barrels that have been shaved, since the thinner staves create more oxygen diffusion in the beer.
New Beer from Old Barrels
Craft brewing is becoming more sophisticated, and the techniques of wood aging are leading the way. Just as the awareness of Belgian beers rocked the boat in the United States in recent years as to what a beer can be, the techniques of barrel aging and barrel fermentation are also changing the American beer landscape. The renaissance of beer in America began by going backwards—reviving the classic ale styles of England and Europe. Now brewers are carrying the movement on by using these old aging methods for new creative results.
So the next time you walk into a craft brewery and see a row of barrels, it probably won’t be much of a shock at all.