Head Brewer, Nebraska Brewing Co.

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 3
May 28, 2013 By

Has the broader beer community grown?

Absolutely. When we opened, I think there was one other brewpub operating two locations in town and one good tap house that focused on craft beer. Now we have three or four new breweries popping up in the next year or two and several good tap houses. And not just bars, but restaurants that are focusing on craft beer. It really neat to see all that happen in a short period of time.

How did you develop the Reserve Series?

It evolved. We bought a couple of wine barrels in our very first year just for fun. We didn’t realize at the time that we were using barrels differently than other breweries. Most people were focusing either on big, sticky bourbon beers or sour beers. We took a different approach: we wanted to develop the wine character and the beer together. That’s how we developed Melange a Trois.

What’s the base beer of Melange a Trois?

I‘d describe it as a Belgian golden strong aged in chardonnay barrels. The first batch was super-small—it was probably about 40 cases—so it sold quite quickly.

There’s a succession of beers that go into the chardonnay barrels.

This all kind of happened by accident, but it was successful so we keep doing it. Hop God is a Belgo-American hybrid we started producing in about 2008, right as that style was coming into vogue. We decided to put that into the wine barrels after they’d been used for Melange a Trois, and the result was really nice. It lets the hop character of the beer mellow, it balances the Belgian character, and there’s a touch of the chardonnay as well. It works together surprisingly well for such a hoppy beer.

Is there a third life for the barrels?

Yes, the third stage is a saison we call Apricot au Poivre, made with apricot purée and black pepper. By this time, the wine character of the barrel is pretty mellow and sometimes we pick up a little Brettanomyces along the way, so Apricot au Poivre takes on a slightly wild character and a little wine. But mainly, that time in the barrel just makes the beer come together.

We’ve done this beer fresh on draft, and it’s not even close to the quality of the beer that comes out of the barrel. It’s kind of rough around the edges when it’s young, the apricot has a slightly bitter quality, but in the barrel that mellows out.

Do you use bourbon barrels?

We use whiskey barrels with a more traditional imperial stout. Bourbon/whiskey—it’s kind of a fine line there, We go for more balance in almost every beer we do, so even with the whiskey barrels we’re very careful about how we use them, not to have the whiskey character overpower our beer. I find that to be a flaw in a lot of bourbon barrel-aged beers.

Have you branched out with other barrels?

We have some brandy barrels we just bought. I’m very anxious to try some other types, but we’re really cramped on space. I think we’re taken out about all the restaurant seats we can afford to maker room for barrels!

How many barrels are we talking about?

We have about sixty barrels right now, and we rotate them about twice a year. There’s almost always beer in a fermenter that’s bound for a barrel.

How do you shop for barrels?

That gets more and more challenging. Obviously, barrel aging has become more popular among brewers, and there’s a somewhat limited supply of used barrels on the market. We have a fairly specific list of requirements as far as the age of the barrel and the type of wine that was in it, and we work with brokers who can find the barrels when we need them.

Have you used new barrels?

We had some white oak barrels made a few years ago, and it’s definitely different working with those than the chardonnay barrels, because the new oak is so aggressive. We learned the hard way that you have to keep an eye on the flavor development, because the oak can dominate the beer in no time at all.