In May 2015, I visited Portland, Maine on a beercation with some friends.
On our tour of Allagash Brewing Company, one of the earliest breweries to brew Belgian-inspired beers in the States, the cellar room, pictured above, was one of the longer stops on our tour.
Racks upon racks of barrels with chalked-on labels were stacked floor to ceiling. Some I recognized to be two of Allagash’s limited release brews, Avancé and Evora, while others are still a mystery (is that scribble a 5 or S?!).
Avancé is a brewed with molasses and four different yeast strains, aged in sour bacteria-inoculated bourbon barrels for a year, then aged for a final six months in stainless steel fermenters on a bed of strawberries.
Evora is a Belgian golden ale initially fermented in stainless steel with a classic Belgian yeast strain, then aged in Portuguese bandy barrels for an additional year with the wild yeast Brettanomyces.
Have I totally lost you?!
Today’s topic of conversation is wood programs, or, in layman’s terms, the barrel aging and blending of beer.
In recent years in the craft beer industry, barrel aging has taken off.
Just think – you can take a base beer that you’ve brewed, let’s say a standard porter, and instead of selling it all, age a portion in a bourbon barrel, a red wine barrel, and a barrel that contains the wild yeast Brettanomyces.
Give these beers a few months to accustom to their new environments and soon you’ll have four very different beers.
It’s no wonder why brewers enjoy this type of experimentation!
Traditionally used in sour Belgian styles, like Lambic, Gueze, and Flanders Red Ale, oak barrels contained the bacteria needed to sour the beer, particularly Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. The bacteria lives in the crevices within the wooden staves and builds up over time, so the same barrels would be used year over year.
Modern American craft brewers, inspired by these Belgian sour ales, then began experimenting with all different kinds of barrels.
From new barrels to used barrels, French oak to American oak, barrels that contained spirits or wine, to barrels that already have their own sour microflora growing inside – the possibilities are endless.
All barrels will age differently, as each barrel has its own internal microclimate (based on the barrel’s size and the microflora, if any, that it contains) and is subject to the influence of the cellar room climate, which is dependent on its storage location (closer or further from a heating source, for example.)
Additionally, what each barrel previously contained – whether it was wine, bourbon, brandy, or sour bacteria, like Lactobacillus – impacts how the beer changes as it ages.
Some breweries use individual barrels, as seen in the image above, while others have upgraded to using foudres (pronounced foo-der), which are large vessels previously used for holding wine that contain anywhere from 80 to 100 times the volume of a barrel. Wowza!
Eric Salazar of New Belgium Brewing says each foudre of theirs has its “own personality” based on size, where it’s located in the cellar, and what it previously contained.
Knowing that each barrel or foudre can take on a mind of its own, it is the blend between the beers in these barrels that creates the finished product.
To blend, every single barrel of the same beer is tasted and scored. It’s important to understand how the flavors will interact – creating dimensions and complexity.
There’s no rule book for blending. It’s a fine art, depending on the flavor profile you’re looking to achieve. Sadly, science won’t help much here.
Aging in used spirits barrels? If the beer in one barrel is too hot (meaning too boozy), younger beer is blended in.
Are your sour barrels not quite tart enough? Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River Brewing Company says they always keep some sour, acidic beer available if additional acidity is needed for the blend at bottling.
As you can imagine, there is an incredible amount of variation.
Loss and risk are inherent, too.
There is always a small amount of loss due to evaporation through the barrels over time, but the bigger risk is loss through contamination, which can cause entire barrels to go to waste if the wrong microflora flourish, leading to off flavors.
Additionally, many brewers take the approach that the beer will tell you when it is ready to drink.
Often for sour bacteria and wild yeast, a minimum of six months is needed for the funky and tart characteristics to develop, but some brewers patiently wait years for the right flavor profile.
For reasons like these, barrel aged beers are often listed as a certain vintage, similar to wine. The same beers simply can’t be made year after year.
Or sometimes, ever again.
It’s worth noting that while most barrel aged beers are blends, unblended beers are produced, but as you can imagine, conditions need to be near perfect for that to happen!
Have you tried any barrel aged beers? What are some of your favorites?