At first sip, the New Belgium Brewing Company's wood-aged La Folie, a limited-release brew that's similar to a Belgian lambic, makes you want to pucker up. The beer has a strikingly sour flavor that catches the uninitiated by surprise. But before you start thinking of those old Keystone Beer commercials, La Folie — which means "the folly" in French — is nothing of the sort. The initial sour taste quickly morphs into a rich creamy glow that is slightly roasted or (appropriately) woody, before finishing with a subtle sweetness that weighs heavily on the back of the tongue.
While the flavor of wood-aged beer may seem unusual, or even exotic, beer traditionally has been brewed this way for centuries. Only in modern times has barrel aging, for the most part, been left behind.
In the New Belgium brewhouse in Fort Collins, Colorado, the juxtaposition of past and present is evident. The modern approach depends on millions of dollars' worth of the most up-to-date, shiny and sophisticated brewing equipment imaginable, yet there are also ancient-looking dark-brown barrels — used wine barrels made of oak — that range in size from 60 gallons (2.25 hectoliters) to 3,200 gallons (120 hectoliters). The barrels are stacked high and filled with slowly fermenting beer.
While production on the "modern" side of New Belgium yields approximately 250,000 barrels per year, the "age-old" method that produces La Folie yielded only 22,080 hand-corked bottles last year. To make obtaining a bottle from this special run even harder, the beer is available only at the Fort Collins brewery. Starting in late June, approximately 6,000 bottles of La Folie will be corked and sold. It is expected, however, that another batch will be available later in the summer. A 750-mL bottle costs $10.
"We are going back in time," says Lauren Salazar, the Sensory Analyst (a.k.a. chief taster) for all New Belgium beers. "We have state-of-the-art technology on one side and wood barrels on the other. It does keep us balanced. We are always striving to be more automated and precise, yet we are also using barrels and making beer in the exact same way beer was accidentally made the first time. It's funny — you spend a million years and a million dollars, and you are getting the exact same product."
A million years may be a slight exaggeration, but the idea behind this "Old World" wood-aging technique has been chronicled at least as far back as the mid-1400s in Europe. Other cultures, such as the Egyptian and Mayan, were brewing beer much earlier, but they were mostly fermenting in clay or stone. In Europe, however, beer was traditionally made and stored in wooden barrels. The barrels also transported well, so this made for a copacetic arrangement. Most of these barrels were lined with brewer's pitch (a neutral resin), so the beers did not pick up wood flavors from the oak. (Pitch-lined barrels remained a brewing industry standard until the mid-1900s, when they were replaced by aluminum and stainless-steel kegs.)
Around the late 1500s, some bartenders began to experiment with blending their barrel-aged beers. By the 1700s, pub customers had the option of young beer, aged beer or a blend of both. Price varied according to choice, with the aged beer commanding the higher price.
"That blending was from the wooden cask, right off the tap, at the bar. What we do is one-hundred percent wood-aged beer, too," says New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. "We also do some barrel tasting and some blends," putting the blended beer back in the barrel for further aging. This process may be repeated several times until blending yields a nice-tasting beer. When Bouckaert is satisfied with the taste, he conditions the beer in the bottle.
The concept of La Folie can be attributed directly to Bouckaert, whose skill with wood-aged beer was cultivated during a ten-year stint at the Rodenbach brewery in his native Belgium. After moving to Fort Collins, Bouckaert was encouraged by his New Belgium colleagues to put his Belgian brewing skills to work. "As I brewer I don't want to be boxed in by strict style guidelines," he said. "Fortunately, the people at New Belgium are interested in creating all types of beer. I am encouraged to experiment. So I brought in some barrels."
Like all New Belgium beers, La Folie is brewed and fermented in a modern, stainless-steel system. The beer is carefully filtered before entering the barrel to strain all remaining yeast, particularly dead yeast cells that lend the beer a yeasty flavor. New Belgium then adds wild yeast (Brettanomyces is the current favorite) and bacteria (namely Lactobacilli) to impart the sour flavors desired for La Folie. (Though he does not prefer them, Bouckaert says a commercial lambic culture can also work well in attaining sour flavors.) The barrels then allow oxygen infusion, a no-no in most beers. In this case, however, the oxygen benefits a secondary fermentation by the wild yeast. The process required a lot of experimentation.
"Initially, we began by inoculating the beer with a variety of different yeasts," Bouckaert says. "We screened fourteen different microorganisms in individual jars, and then we started combining them. Then we inoculated each of our first twelve barrels with different yeast and bacteria regimes" to see what worked best. "One key is to have good surface contact," says Bouckaert. "You want the beer touching the wood in order to get good oak flavors and oxygen into the beer."
New Belgium begins by scraping old wine barrels to remove sediments and unwanted yeasts. This opens the wood pores to allow aerobic microorganisms, which are naturally present in wood, to get to work once the beer is added. Together with the yeast and Lactobacilli, these organisms contribute to the beer's sour flavor. Once clean, the barrels are then sanitized with sulfur and filled with a finished base beer. Bouckaert initially experimented by adding leftover or "spoiled" beer (that is, not up to New Belgium's exacting quality standards) to the barrels. Some, like the Fat Tire and Abbey, worked better than others, such as Old Cherry, which he deemed already a touch sour and too fruity. Now Bouckaert has developed a special brew for La Folie, though he is presently wood-aging several other styles as well. (For an all-grain recipe and an extract-with-grains option, see page 44.)
Once the barrel is filled, there is little to do but wait. The larger barrels can take more than three years to attain suitable flavors. Along the way each barrel is taste-tested by Salazar. Some barrels may have a "barnyard" or "horse-blanket" flavor, while others are extremely sour and lactic or acidic. "Patience is the key to this beer," she says. "Our barrels are like the crockpots of brewing, and the flavors will change dramatically over time."
"It is really about blending, matching the right flavors," agrees Eric Salazar, Lauren's husband and partner in the blending of La Folie. "We'll mix the barrels up; take half from one barrel and switch it with another. We are really lucky to have so many barrels. For the most part we just mix everything and keep it going. If something is a little high on the sour flavor or another is a little low, maybe we'll blend those. And we never drain (the barrel), but replenish it and keep that (internal) culture alive. It's a pretty cool process."
Ultimately, the most compatible barrels are blended and given some time to meld. If the match remains a good one, the beer is filtered off to a stainless-steel holding tank and eventually corked and labeled. Bottle conditioning lasts three months before the beer is ready to drink.
Barrel aging at home
For homebrewers the process of making wood-aged beer couldn't be easier. Brew a favorite beer or Bouckaert's recipe, let it ferment out, rack to a barrel and add wild yeast and bacteria. After that, a lot depends on your patience and the type of sour tastes desired. Homebrewers can also take advantage of the shorter aging times provided by smaller barrels, which should be capable of producing drinkable beer in 4 to12 months, depending on the alcohol level (see sidebar.) Smaller barrels also offer an opportunity to experiment with multiple barrels and blending. Brewers who would like to sample wood-aged beer before making the barrel investment have several alternatives for adding "oakiness" and obtaining sour flavors.
Wood chips, oak extract and oak powder are a few options (see below for more details).
"For the homebrewer, it is really easy to monitor the beer," Lauren Salazar adds. "Once you inoculate the brew you don't need any fancy measuring equipment, just the ability to taste something and decide if it is going right or wrong. When using this approach, anything you know about brewing, do the opposite. That's why we call this beer La Folie, the Folly. It's just fun. There are no rules. All those things you may otherwise consider off-flavors, you now look for to know if things are really happening."
"You also have to be willing to dump out a few (batches)," Bouckaert adds. "With the wine barrels, I expect to dump the first filling. You have to be willing to do that because you are not going to hit it right the first time. Maybe you are never going to. It takes time to get the microbiology right, and even once you have it right, it might not stay right. Basically, if it tastes good, bottle it!
"Any art is based on knowledge and how you express it, but you have to have an idea," Bouckaert says. "Andy Warhol didn't care what people said about his paintings. He just did it. That is what I want to do with this beer."
Making La Folie at Home
Here is the all-grain recipe that New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert has developed to fill his wooden casks. As mentioned in the article, there are many variables to this style of brewing, so experimentation is in order. Bouckaert recommends aiming for 6 percent alcohol by volume.
La Folie Wood-Aged Beer
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG: 1.062 FG: 1.015 (or lower)
IBU: 20 ABV: 6%
9.75 lbs. (4.4 kg) two-row pale malt
1.3 lbs. (0.59 kg) Munich malt
1.3 lbs. (0.59 kg) crystal malt (40–80 °L, depending on the color you want in the finished beer)
0.65 lbs. (0.29 kg) unmalted wheat
5.7 AAU Cantillion Iris hops (1.9 oz./53 g at 3% alpha acid)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) yeast
Wyeast 3278 (Lambic Blend) yeast and bacteria (or individual cultures of Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces)
Step by step
If you treat your water, shoot for 75 ppm of calcium and 50 ppm of chloride. Mash grains at 154 °F (68 °C) for 30 minutes. "You are trying to create enough nutrients for a long aging process," says Bouckaert. "I use relatively high mashing temperatures, so that the proteins in the wort are complex and low in nitrogen. Stay high in temperatures if you can, but the trick is not to go too high."
Add hops at the beginning of the boil. If you can't find Cantillion Iris hops, try any other low-cohumulone, noble hop. "Hop variety is not that important in this beer," says Bouckaert. Aroma hops are not required, but if you'd like, you could try dry-hopping later, in the barrel.
Ferment with a neutral ale yeast at 77 °F (25 °C). When primary fermentation is complete, rack to secondary, using care to filter out as much yeast as possible. You could add some Lactobacilli at this stage. Rack to the barrel at any time, again, being careful to remove as much yeast as possible. Once the beer is in the barrel, pitch with Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacilli (if not already added). A lambic starter culture will also work.
Store barrel in a cool, dry place. After that, it is just a matter of time. Samples can be removed with a siphon or wine thief. Your beer is ready to blend, keg or bottle whenever you like the taste!
Extract with Grains Option
Replace two-row malt, Munich malt and unmalted wheat with 9.4 pounds of liquid malt extract designed for dark German lagers (the extract should include some Munich). Steep crystal malt at 158 °F (70 °C) for 30 minutes, then add extract and boil.
Oak Barrels: What You Need To Know
Once you are ready to make the jump to wood-aged brewing, the key is finding a suitable barrel and understanding the basics of maintenance. The choices are really quite simple: French or American (the most popular choices, though others are available), new or used, big or small, light or heavily toasted.
The basic difference between French and American barrels is not so much in the wood (though many believe French oak is superior), but in the way the wood is prepared. French oak is hand-split with an axe, air-dried for up to two years and heated on an open fire to make the wood pliable for barrel construction. This is also known as "toasting," and the more time on the fire, the stronger the smoky flavors.
American barrels are generally — though not always, so ask what you are getting — cut with saws and kiln-dried for quicker preparation. Steam is used to soften the wood for barrel building, but they are toasted as well. More recently, some American barrels are being made in the French method. However, these barrels come with a higher price tag.
Wood density, or the tightness of the grain, should also be taken into consideration. Wood with a tighter grain is less porous, meaning the oak flavors are extracted at a slower rate.
With new barrels, the rate of wood and oxygen extraction is increased, which means the beer may develop too quickly. Bouckaert recommends countering that by boosting the alcohol content to 7–7.25 percent. (He aims for 6.25 percent in his well-used barrels). But don't go too high, Bouckaert warns, or the souring Lactobacilli bacteria can be harmed.
Used barrels will need to be cleaned before use to remove residual wine deposits. Try to remove wine crystals with a power washer, Bouckaert recommends, but don't scrape the sides. The used barrels will have a slower extraction rate, due to residue build-up on the wood and the number of previous extractions in the winemaking process.
Smaller barrels (sizes range from 5 to 60 gallons, though larger can be found from some wineries) provide more surface contact than larger barrels. This will decrease aging times (usually less than a year) but may cause more waste from "over-oaked" batches. A much larger barrel, say 15 gallons or more, will take longer to mature but leaves plenty of room for experimental blending if the urge strikes. More monitoring is required with smaller barrels, but it's a great excuse to head for your brew room!
A 7.5-gallon barrel is a particularly good size for homebrewing. Since many brewers are accustomed to the 5-gallon batch size, increasing your recipe by half the first time will be easy. It is important to completely fill this barrel. There are three reasons for this: First, some beer will naturally "disappear" — that is, transpire through the wood — during the aging process. Second, it is always a good idea to leave some beer in the barrel — not unlike a sourdough starter that retains the "right" flavors. (Of course, if the batch doesn't work out, dump the barrel completely and begin fresh.) And topping off reduces the air space and thus unneeded oxygen in the barrel — there is plenty in the wood alone! The yield can still be five gallons. Then brew enough in the second batch to refill the barrel completely, adding to the remaining beer. Batch size will vary from time to time, depending on how much is needed to top off the barrel.
When purchasing a used barrel, smell the barrel for off-flavors and inspect with a flashlight for residue deposits to determine if much cleaning will be required. Do an outside inspection of spacing between the staves, alignment of the staves, straightness of the head, tightness of the hoops, placement of the head, bug holes, previous repairs and the like. Do any necessary repair work (hopefully minimal) and then wash the barrel with warm water. If you dare to remove the head, carefully scrape the inside with a knife to open up the pores. This is an especially good idea for used wine barrels. Take note, however: This is usually something best left to an experienced cooper. Dismantling an oak barrel could be asking for trouble.
Once the barrel is cleaned, or for new barrels, fill to about 25% with very hot water and rotate the barrel so the entire inside is moistened. As the water cools, internal pressure will increase and any leaks should become evident. Small leaks usually seal as the wood expands. If all leaks have not sealed in a day, a longer soaking may be needed with a special solution. (Check with your barrel source.) If the barrel still leaks after 48 hours, it is defective. If all the leaks have stopped, drain and dry completely and sanitize by burning a sulfur stick inside. Let sit for 24 hours, then rinse and fill with beer. Never use chlorine-based cleaners in barrels.
Barrels range in price from $160 to $680 depending on size and place of origin. Check with your local brew shop first, but if they can't get you barrels, try these suppliers below.
Midwest Homebrewing Supplies
Presque Isle Wine Cellars
Okanagan Barrel Works
Seguin Moreau USA
(707) 252-3408 www.seguinmoreau.com
Home Winemaking Supplies