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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Barrel Full of Fun

My American Stout has finished primary fermentation and I’m getting ready to add it to the barrel that I just got. In preparation for this let’s discuss how to use and maintain a barrel.

One note before I start, if you are looking to get wood aged flavors from barrel aging, you need a new barrel or a refurbished barrel. Many local distilleries and wineries will sell their used barrels for cheap. I called around my local area and found several wineries that would part with red wine barrels for 50$ to 75$. These barrels were all refurbished, and ready to go. Refurbished means cleaned, possibly shaved staves, and charred. Refurbished barrels have some wood flavor to impart due to the charring, but can have thinner staves, will be more oxygen permeable and won’t impart as much wood flavor as a new barrel; they may also still have flavors of the previous liquid they held, like red wine. Used barrels are a great option for sour beer. Once I extract all the oak flavor out of my barrel I will be turning it into a sour barrel.

When you get your barrel, it’s not ready to go just yet. There are a few steps you need to take. The first and most important step is to swell the wood. Take your new barrel and fill 1/3 with water. Wait a few hours, fill 1/3 wait several hours, fill the final 1/3 and wait a day. Ensure there are no leaks. Any well-made barrel will not leak after swelling, but if you have leaks, empty and repeat with hot water. After letting the barrel sit for a day, empty the water and you are ready to go. If the barrel is used, then you may want to burn a sulfur stick in the barrel or add sulfate tables to the water as you soak. This will help ensure any contaminates are gone prior to use.

Fill the barrel with your freshly fermented beer. Leave some head space for off gassing. I’d recommend not trying to ferment in the barrel. This can cause excessing foaming and blow-off. Instead, ferment in plastic or glass as per your usual routine, then secondary in the barrel.  Be careful not to splash too much on to the outside of the barrel as this could encourage fungus growth. If you do notice dark spots forming around your airlock you should wipe off with hot water.

Over time, aging in the barrel will impart deepening wood aged flavors. Vanilla, dark chocolate and coffee are amongst the most pronounced. The level of flavor will depend on the age of the barrel and the length of time the beer spends in the barrel. While the flavor deepens, the beer will evaporate just a bit, called the angel’s share, and will oxidize just a tad, all of which will lead to a complex flavor.  Don’t be impatient. Once you start aging a beer, you want to allow several weeks to pass before you sample. The newer the barrel the more intense the oak flavors will be, so you’ll need less aging time. As more and more beer passes through the barrel, you’ll need more time to bring out the flavors. Weeks will turn to months. Eventually, the entire oak flavor will be extracted from the barrel and you’ll need to decide to buy a new one, recondition the barrel, or move on of sour beers.

In between barrel aging projects, you need to store your barrel correctly. HomeBrewStuff’s barrels come with sulfate tables that you add to the barrel after filling it with water. The sulfate tables will keep the barrel clean while the water will keep the staves swelled and leak proof. If you don’t have sulfate tables, you can store the barrel filled 1/3 with water to help keep the staves swelled. Or if you are going to be using the barrel much later, you can wash the barrel with plain water, empty, and burn a sulfur stick in the barrel and store dry. If you store dry, you will need to swell the staves prior to use. If you store wet without any additives, don’t let the water sit for more than a few weeks or it could start to develop fungus or mold.

This is my first barrel. I have no hands on experience of how to use a barrel so I had to do a lot of research online. As I have said before, online sources can have misinformation in them. If you see something that I am misinformed about let me know in the comments. This is as much a learning experience for me as it is (hopefully) informative for you.

1 comment:

Brett Begani said...

My first barrel was previously used to transport Rum, and had all of it's oak flavor remaining. I brewed 30 gallons of my Arrogant Bastard clone during Big Brew. 1/2 a pound of Chinook hops went in along with 25 gallons of the beer. Then in a week I topped up to the airlock with my reserve keg. After only three weeks the oak was overwhelming so it was racking time. The next beer I made was 30 gallons of Flanders Red. Pre-fermented with Cal Ale WLP001, I pitched in two packs of the Roselare mix of bugs and let it sit for 8 months. I had to move at this point so it came out into kegs. This beer went to the second round of NHC. The next sour was a Rogue Dead Guy clone pre-fermented with PacMan yeast, then spent 9 months in the barrel. This beer was pouring at the PDX brewers booth club night of 2012's NHC. Jamil Z himself said it was the best club sour at the conference! Whoo! Now the barrel has had multiple Berliner Weiss beers run through it, which if you have the patience adds depth and complexity to a session sour without just lactic tang.
The biggest suggestion I can make on new barrels is to taste it at least once every couple of days, most commercial brewers drill a small hole a few inches up from the bottom on the side of the barrel and stick in a stainless nail or wooden stick. This allows you to take a sample of the beer without disturbing the CO2 blanket in the head space. If you have a local brewery that does any barrel aging drop by and see if the brewer or cellar master has some time to chat. As Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog recommends on his sour beers, ferment in the barrel, the bugs and the yeast will continue to develop the flavor over the year or so they are aging. My sours develop quicker as the 30 gallon barrel I use has thin staves, which allow much more oxygen to permeate and speed up the process.