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Barrel Aging: Pro Brewer Roundtable Tips

 

What styles of beers do you like to age in wood and why?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
We age all of our beers in oak. We enjoy looking for the influence of the wild yeast and souring bacteria on all different styles.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
I prefer blonde ales, both lower in ABV and in the 7% range. They tend to dry out a little better which I really like in barrel beers. But, with that said, we just recently did the 20th Anniversary Ale for the Toronado Pub in San Francisco. Dave Keene, the owner, gave me three guidelines: dark, barrel aged and funky. I ended up brewing five different beers and then Dave and I did the final blend. It ended up being a sour, Belgian-style dark strong ale. It was AWESOME. In fact, I thought it was one of the best barrel beers we’ve ever done.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
Here at Avery we’ve generally focused on our “big” beers – our varieties that are over 9% ABV. These have ranged from our 10% ABV Belgian-style quadrupel (The Reverend) to our 12% ABV Imperial Stout (The Czar) to The Beast, a 16% ABV Belgian Grand Cru of sorts. We have a lot of interest in these beers to begin with, so it’s natural that barrel-aged versions become much sought after.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
I don’t particularly look to age certain styles of beer in the barrels. I look for beers that I think will benefit from the flavors of the wood or whatever was held in the barrel previously. As a general rule, strong, dark beers tend to have flavors that integrate the best with the oaky flavors, but many other styles  will work as well.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
It all depends on what types of barrels are being used and what you’re going for with them. Aging beers like our Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine, Stone Imperial Russian Stout, and Double Bastard Ale do very well in bourbon barrels, adding depth and complexity to an already outstanding beer. Lots of vanilla, bourbon, coconut, and alcohol come through.

Brandy barrels are very similar to bourbon, but seem to impart less of an oak or bourbon character. They seem a little more neutral, as many brandy barrels are retired wine or bourbon barrels that have been stripped of a lot of the oak character by being filled numerous times. Our Stone Smoked Porter, Stone Pale Ale, and Double Bastard Ale have all spent some time in brandy barrels (separately, of course!) and come out tasty.

This last spring we were fortunate enough to get our hands on some red wine barrels which we filled with our ‘07 Vertical Epic Ale. This is a Belgian-style beer that has done well in the wine barrels for the last few months. I’m looking forward to tasting this one in about a year or so.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
I recommend barleywine and imperial stout. Big, ageable beers benefit the most from wood aging.

Did you decide to age beers in wood to experiment or to be traditional?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
It is really a mix of both. Brewers originally aged beer in oak, and it is very traditional, but now it seems like most people have moved away from oak and into stainless steel, so I feel that our move back to the barrels is also experimental. I think of it as a revivalist tradition.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
When I started doing barrel-aged beers, I wanted to take my favorite component in a lambic, which is Brettanomyces, and use that in local wine barrels in a strong blonde Belgian-style ale. This beer ended up being Temptation. Although customers tend to like and hype the Supplication more, I like the Temptation for its straightforward Brett character. Over time, some Lacto and Pedio have infused in the beer, but it is minimal. So, it was both experimental and traditional.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
We definitely do it to experiment. We really don’t do anything traditional here at Avery. The coolest things we’ve done in barrels were experiments with Brettanomyces and different yeast strains in different barrels.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
I am always looking to add my own twist on a traditional method of aging beer. All beer was aged in wood at one point, some for the flavors, some out of necessity, and some to achieve new and acidic flavors. The experimentation comes when you use a type of barrel that has not been used before or you take a beer that typically would not be aged in wood and add it to a barrel.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
A little bit of tradition, but mostly experimental. It’s really cool and a lot of fun to see how beers develop over time in barrels and how much they change.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
For our beers, barrel aging is both traditional and experimental.

How long do you age your beers and why?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
We age for varying times depending on the beer and maturation period. The longer the beer is in the barrel the more sour it will become. We age anywhere from two weeks to many years.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
We go a minimum of 12 months and as long as 24 months for Beatification. There is no real formula for the time a beer must sit in a barrel with the bugs and critters, but, it is those very bugs and critters that will tell you when the beer is ready to be pulled out. It takes at least six months for the Brett to show any signs of the work it has been doing, and the Lacto & Pedio are not much faster, depending on the strain. We go 12 to 15 months for Temptation and Supplication and longer on Beatification, which is spontaneously fermented.

It is just a slow process regardless of how you look at it. Sometimes we develop some acid character from the bacterias pretty early on, but it is usually pretty sharp then, and in time it tends to mellow out and meld with the Brett.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
It definitely depends on the beer. When we are using Bretts or lambic blends, it’s usually about achieving a flavor profile from the yeasts and bacteria. With other beers it’s about acquiring the character of the barrel, which in our experience varies greatly with the type of barrel used.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
I always tell people the same thing — until the beer is ready. Some of our beers age for over a year, and some only a month or two. It really comes down to what type of flavors you want and the intensity that you want to get out of the barrel. A freshly-emptied bourbon barrel will give you flavors really quickly, while a sour beer may need to sit in the wood for a few years.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
With the big beers, we let them hang out in the barrels for at least six to 12 months. The Belgian-style beers in barrels may go for a little longer, depending on whether they are “funkified” or not. Lower alcohol beers might age in the barrel for anywhere from three to six months on average.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
We age for around six to nine months in order to pick up enough wood to make a difference in the beer.

Do you prefer unused barrels or those from spirits or wine for your beers? What type of oak do you prefer and why?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
The majority of our barrels are used spirit barrels, but we like to find barrels that other brewers have already used for extracting the spirit flavors. We’re looking for more of a clean note, rather than the spirit. We actually have a lot of barrels from Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, California. New barrels are expensive, so there is that factor, but we also like the used barrels because we are looking for a home for wild yeast. Chances are, there may be something already in a used barrel when we get it. We use many  barrels with all different kinds of oak — German, Austrian, U.S. and French — and they are all different and unique. But we don’t age our beers in specific barrels for certain oak characteristics like you would for wine. Once the barrels are reused, the oak flavors imparted on the beer tend to become neutral.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
We use 100% used wine barrels. A part of the Temptation and Supplication is infusing the wine flavors from the barrel into the beer, then there is the minor amount of oak that gets contributed, plus all the flavor of the beer and the funk that has been added.

I’ve never used a new barrel, but one of these days I plan to get a larger barrel and try it out. I don’t personally like spirit barrels, as the liquor that was once in the barrel tends to overpower the funk that we are trying to have come through in the beer’s personality.

We tend to use French oak, but we are about to start a new beer called Consecration, which will be aged in used, 100% American oak Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. There is a belief among brewers that French oak is better because it is more porous, so the bugs and critters can stay impregnated in the oak longer and more easily. This may be true, but it will also aid in the barrel more easily picking up Acetobacter over time — this is something that I don’t like. A little Acetobacter adds some nice character to the beer, but it can overrun a beer as well.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
So far we have preferred used wine barrels. We like the character that the previous contents add to our different beers.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
The choice all depends on the beer you are making. Some styles require the flavor of the spirit that was in the barrel previously and some beers are only aged in the barrel to acquire flavors from the microbes living in the wood. As a general rule, we age our sour beers in wine barrels as opposed to barrels that held spirits such as bourbon or rum, but that is not always the case.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
I have only had the opportunity to use barrels that have previously contained spirits or wine. I would imagine unused barrels to be intensely woody and take some blending to make the aged beer palatable. I like French oak and American oak equally. They have different qualities that can be used for different beers.

It’s nice to be able to play around with the two types and see which one works best for the type of beer you’re working with. American oak tends to be a bit more intense and rough at times, while French oak has a softer, less intense woodiness with some nice vanilla undertones.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
French oak barrels used once for red wine is our normal method, but we are always experimenting with new stuff like bourbon barrels and my personal favorite, brandy.

Do you age your beer in wood with the intent to blend?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
We blend a lot. For example, La Roja is a Flanders-style ale blended from beer in barrels ranging in age from two to ten months. Luciernaga, our pale ale, is actually two separate beers we make specifically to blend at bottling. And Perseguidor, our sour blend, is actually a number of different beers that are blended together and matured up to six months in the barrel. Many of our seasonal ales, like Noel de Calabaza, are also blended.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
In many cases, blending only happens if the final beer needs it. If we can bottle it unblended, we will. With Beatification, it will always be blended now because we bottle multiple vintages, just like a Belgian-style Lambic Gueuze. We also always keep some sour, acid beer around if we need to acidify a beer at blending.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
We are just beginning to produce enough barrel stuff to begin blending.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
Some beers get blended out of necessity. You need to evaluate each beer on its own merits then decide whether it needs to be blended or it can stand alone.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
For the majority of the time, no. I like to fill at least two barrels with the same beer at once so that when it’s time to rack them to another tank for carbonation I have enough beer to make it worth the effort. This makes the beer more desirable as well, because it’s such a limited quantity. There could be some blending in the future, however.

Do you have any experience using oak alternatives instead of barrels?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
I don’t have any experience with oak alternatives, and I don’t think I plan to try them. I feel that there’s really no comparison to barrel aging. Certainly it is possible to make some fantastic beers with the alternatives, but that’s just not the same as the revivalist style of brewing that we do here.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
Back when I had Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, California, we actually added oak chips to every batch of Blind Pig IPA. We also added them to our Double IPA and Barleywine. Natalie (my wife) and I now own the trademark for Blind Pig again and we make Blind Pig IPA. When people ask me what the difference is between the recipe from now and then, I always forget to say that we don’t use the oak chips now.

We recently made Batch 23 Damnation, which was a supped-up version of Damnation, our Belgian-style strong golden ale. We took it up to 11% ABV, changed the base malt, changed the hops around, and aged it on oak chips. The oak came though nicely and the beer  was so well received that I think I will make this beer the same way for every 23rd bottling of Damnation.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
In our 15% ABV Samael’s Oak Aged Strong Ale we use a blend of different oak chips in the conditioning tank with great results. When we started brewing this beer (and to this day) we did not have the barrel capacity to produce the 700 or so odd cases that are ordered annually.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
Yes, quite a bit actually. I have used oak chips, some very fine oak dust, and I’ve got some infusion spirals to try out soon as well. Oak alternatives are a great option for the homebrewer, as barrels can be quite pricey.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
We have experimented with oak chips for some of our beers.

At what point do you think it’s best to introduce your beer to the wood?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
I really hesitate to say “best” about anything, because it depends on what you are looking for in the finished beer. Firestone Walker actually ferments some in the oak, for example, but we put our beer in the barrels after primary fermentation.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
For most of our barrel beers, we will finish a beer with either fining or filtration and then put it in wood. I like putting fairly clean beer into the barrel. With that said, though, now that Beatification is spontaneously fermented, it stays in the barrel for 24 months and we don’t take it out until it is ready to bottle. So, it is sort of a mixed bag for us. There are no real rules.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
We have experimented with full fermentation in the barrel to aging filtered, finished beer. Most of our stuff has been fermented but is very young when we transfer it to oak. Having some yeast present obviously helps the beer age, so we try to achieve a reasonable cell count before racking.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
The best time to introduce the beer is after primary fermentation is complete.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
It depends on the beer and what you’re looking to get out of the wood/beer aging. Most of the time I’ll rack the beer into the barrels after fermentation is complete and the beer is chilled and fairly bright. Other times, I’ll introduce the beer towards the end of fermentation and place an airlock on the barrel to let it finish its fermentation in the barrel.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
I think after fermentation is the best.

Do you reuse barrels after you’ve aged a batch?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
Reusing barrels is the way that we are able to build up the wild yeast populations, which is why we use the barrels.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
We have sort of our own barrel program, which goes like this: for Temptation, Supplication and soon Consecration, all of those beers are aged in specific barrels with a specific wine type in them. Because we intend to pull some of the wine flavor from the barrel, it is important for us to bring in fresh barrels every year. With these three beers, we tend to call out 40% of the barrels each year and bring in 40% new barrels (that is, new to us). Then, we take the old barrels that have absolutely no oak or wine left in them and move them over to the Beatification, which we want to have no oak or wine flavor. With Beatification, we are only using the wood to harbor the funk.

In our new brewery we are building right now, I’m having trouble getting white wine barrels, and for some reason I have been overrun with Pinot Noir barrels from all of my winemaker friends. So, as it looks, in late 2009, we’ll have lots of Supplication and very little Temptation. Once we use up the barrels over the following few years, a lot of these barrels will be turned into Beatification barrels.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
Yes. We especially like some of our wine barrels that have developed certain sour producing bacteria and we use that to our advantage aging some of our wacky “Belgiany” stuff.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company
Sometimes we reuse barrels, but usually for sour beers only.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
I like to use the barrels several times and make notes on how much oak character is still left. Most often I will rack the beer out of a barrel and refill it with another beer on the same day. Even if barrels are spent of any oak character, they can still be put to good use. You can add oak alternatives, funky wild yeasts — or use them in your garden for decoration.

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
We use our barrels a few times – until wood flavor dissipates.

What advice can you give a homebrewer who would use a small barrel or oak chips to achieve similar aging results?

Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Company
With the emergence of more barrel-aged styles, we get this question a lot. I have two pieces of advice. First, these types of barrels can leak or seep, which can look like amber oozing out. You don’t really know if the barrel is going to leak or not, so I recommend storing the aging beer in a place that you can clean, and not, say, in a closet. Second, the oak in smaller barrels is much thinner so the oxygen diffusion is much different. This will likely cause more rapid maturation, so you really need to keep an eye on it. One thing we’ve learned from our larger barrels is that when the beer is ready to bottle, you better get it out of there.

Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
The problem with a small oak barrel is that you get too much oxygen diffusion because the oak staves are thinner than, say, a 60-gallon (227-L) wine barrel. A Belgian friend of mine who makes lambic beer just emailed about barrels but he wanted larger used wine barrels, something like 100 or 120 gallons (379 or 454 L). This is because there is less oxygen diffusion as the barrel gets larger.

For the homebrewer, he or she needs to watch the O2 uptake and consider only aging in the small barrel for a maybe six months. Then maybe move to a keg or a carboy to finish.

I love the idea of using oak chips to move the funk from one batch to another. For those that heard me speak at the AHA conference in Denver or at the NorCal Homebrewers Fest, I have my “dime bag of oak chips” with some bugs and critters from Russian River. It is a concept.

Steve Breezley, Avery Brewing Company
A few oak chips go a long way, so be careful. I know some people have soaked oak chips in whiskey to disinfect and potentially add flavor, but I haven’t heard of anybody doing that with wine, which on the small scale would be fun.

Oak chips are also a great idea if you are mixing in any bugs to the equation, because if you get Brettanomyces or other critters in any small barrels, they’re probably there for good.

Scott Vaccaro, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company

You need to have a second batch of the same beer ready to blend with the oak-aged beer, just in case the intensity of the barrel is too much. Start with a small amount of chips and work your way up until you get the desired amount of flavor. It may take a few batches, but the results will be worth it.

John Egan, Stone Brewing Company
Go easy at first! Experiment, have fun, and be patient. Don’t rush the wood aging. Let it do its thing, taste it every once in awhile, and when you feel it’s ready to keg or bottle, go for it. It’s all sensorial and it’s your beer, so when it tastes right to you, drink it!

Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing Company
Go for it! Taste it along the way so you don’t overdo it, or be prepared to blend the aged batch with unoaked beer to reach a nice balance.