All beer is made from four essential ingredients: water, barley, yeast and hops.
But brewing beer is more involved than simply combining these four ingredients. From this foundation, brewers can head down one of many rabbit holes, to various Wonderlands where beer styles can transform with the addition of fruits and spices during fermentation, where bacteria and wild yeast can work flavorful magic and where time in a barrel makes something extraordinary with new characteristics and complexities.
Brewers can get caught up in these worlds of infusing and barrel-aging beer, adding and tinkering and experimenting, to create truly special suds. The realm where many brewers have recently turned their focus is a subset of an already popular practice – aging beer in barrels.
EARLY DAYS OF BARREL AGING
For hundreds of years wine barrels have served as successful aging vessels for beer – especially sour styles where flavors are predominantly developed by wild yeast and bacteria rather than the oak of the barrel itself. More recently, used whiskey and bourbon barrels have become the front-runners for aging beer, used to impart the spirited flavor of past inhabitants.
Twenty-three years ago, Goose Island Beer Co., based out of Chicago, first released Bourbon County Stout, the dark and boozy beer aged in bourbon barrels that is often credited as the first bourbon barrel-aged beer.
In 2006, Phil Wymore began working as a brewer (and later cellar manager) at Goose Island. Wymore was involved in producing some of the brewery’s most popular barrel-aged beers, including Madam Rose, a Belgian-style brown ale fermented with wild yeast and aged on cherries in wine barrels. In 2010, Wymore took the knowledge he’d gained in Chicago and moved to St. Louis, where he opened Perennial Artisan Ales a year later in the south Carondelet neighborhood.
The first person to join Wymore at Perennial was Cory King, who was impressed with Wymore’s concept and business model of a brewery focused on Belgian ales and barrel aging. After collaborating with Wymore for a couple of years as head brewer at Perennial (and releasing highly popular wine- and whiskey-barrel aged beers, chief among them barrel-aged Abraxas, an imperial stout aged in Rittenhouse Rye barrels with ancho chiles, cocoa nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks), King launched his own barrel-aging enterprise, Side Project Brewing, in 2013. Side Project brews in the same facility as Perennial, but as of late last year, fans of its sour Belgian-inspired saisons, barrel-aged stouts, barleywines and Belgian quads can visit its tasting room, The Side Project Cellar, in Maplewood, Missouri. As the workload at Side Project has increased, King has recently transitioned from head brewer at Perennial to Director of Oak, managing the brewery’s barrel-aging program.
Side Project is a 100 percent barrel-aging brewery that produces small-batch ales with limited distribution – its beers are only sold at the tasting room – but unlimited creativity. The brewery is well-known for its sour beers – which comprise 90 to 95 percent of its releases, according to King – primarily aged in American and French oak wine barrels that share aging space at Perennial.
But, ever the adventurer with an insatiate scientific approach to brewing, King also ages beer in unconventional spirit barrels. He’s been aging an imperial milk stout in a Ron Zacapa aged Caribbean rum barrel for the past year, waiting for the sweeter, caramel notes he’s tasting to round out and meld with the stout. The last stouts he released, Derivation Blend No. 1 and No. 2, were aged in a blend of bourbon barrels for nearly two years.
“Picture me pouring a glass of imperial stout and a shot of whiskey, and then pouring the whiskey into that beer and drinking it,” King says. “When you put beer in a bourbon barrel, that’s exactly what it tastes like – at first. But beer is a living thing. With time and oxidation, beer starts soaking into and out of the oak and pulling out the vanilla and roundness that it adds – it’s why whiskey and other spirits are aged in oak in the first place.”
In June, Side Project released a different kind of nontraditional brew: Unblended No. 40, an American wild ale fermented with only Missouri yeast and bacteria and aged in Missouri oak Chardonnay barrels sourced from Crown Valley Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. King normally blends aged beers together to achieve a specific flavor profile, but he knew the characteristics of this particular barrel, No. 40, needed to be highlighted on its own.
“[The beer] was so citrus-fruit forward that I was like, ‘I have to bottle this like it is,’” King says. “There was nothing that could be done to make it better. It was the best barrel to come out of the brewery so far. People thought I was lying – they could swear there were lemons and limes and oranges added. There was no fruit; it was all from the barrel, yeast, bacteria and time.”
With 220 barrels currently in rotation at Side Project and around 200 at Perennial, King has experience working with many types of barrels. His second barrel-centric beer, Unblended No. 25, a big, malty Traditional Old Ale aged with Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria will be released this month, aged in a Blanton’s bourbon barrel.
Around the same time Wymore was learning the ropes at Goose Island, another of the region’s largest craft breweries, Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, was pushing forward with its own barrel-aging program. In 2009, the now 25-year-old brewery had maybe a dozen small projects aging in barrels, according to Dustin Jamison, head brewer and lead of barrel operations. Bourbon-Barrel Quad, Boulevard’s best-selling barrel-aged beer, was first produced in limited quantity in 2008, and an imperial stout followed later that year. In early 2010, Rye on Rye, a rye ale aged in Templeton Rye whiskey barrels from the Iowa-based distillery, was released. In 2011, Boulevard began growing the number of barrels for aging.
From that initial handful, Boulevard’s program has grown to more than 2,200 barrels, which are now housed in an underground, 20,000-square-foot limestone cave near the brewery. Organized in stacks of eight, rows of barrels stretch up to the cave’s 16-foot ceiling. There are 531 barrels of Rye on Rye aging alone.
Jamison says Boulevard’s barrel-age program has progressed naturally in the four years since the first big release. “At first, the thought of doing a 100-barrel run of Bourbon-Barrel Quad seemed like a huge undertaking,” he says. “Now, we’re doing four or five times that on all of the brands.”
Boulevard has experimented with aging beer in nontraditional barrels, but so far the brewery hasn’t released one – Jamison says a rum barrel-aged version of its Imperial Stout X series was in the works this past year, but the idea has been shelved until Boulevard can find quality rum barrels.
NECESSITY VERSUS CREATIVITY
The increased clamoring for used whiskey and bourbon barrels has led to dwindling supply across the country. For some local breweries, the need to source other types of used barrels is driven by necessity, yet for others, it’s driven by an effort to create new and interesting beers.
It was the former situation that Martin City Brewing Co. co-owners Matt Moore and Chance Adams found themselves in while trying to get their Kansas City brewery off the ground. Within six months of its February 2014 opening, whiskey barrel-aged beers were served on tap. Moore and Adams say their reasoning was two-prong: one, due to their mutual love of whiskey-aged stouts and porters and two, the need for the nascent brewery to “make more noise” in the burgeoning craft-brewery market. However, they soon encountered a familiar struggle: By the end of 2014, they could no longer find used bourbon and whiskey barrels consistently. They managed to get their hands on a few dozen brandy barrels and, without knowing what they would get out of them, created a brandy barrel-aged Belgian tripel that became a year-round, best-selling staple. The brandy adds grapey, fruity characteristics and a sweet dessert-wine aroma that balance out the spicy clove notes from the Belgian yeast used during fermentation.
Martin City’s 150-barrel program has also pumped out an imperial stout and barleywine aged in brandy barrels, a rum barrel-aged imperial stout, as well as a tequila barrel-aged agave quad that’s currently aging (the sweetness of the agave meshes with the tropical
tequila notes more than, say, honey would), plus port barrels are on the way.
“We’re a new guy in this game, too, trying to make our mark,” Moore says. “The little breweries have an advantage in our flexibility to do whatever we want, even if we don’t know what impact the barrels will have on flavor.”
While Martin City employed brandy, tequila, port and rum barrels out of necessity, other brewers are seeking them out for experimentation.
Crane Brewing Co., which plans to open its doors in October in the Raytown suburb of Kansas City, intends to devote nearly half of its brewing facility to barrel aging from the very beginning.
“The nature and focus of our brewery is Belgian farmhouse ales, all beers that have traditionally been, for the past hundreds of years, involving Brettanomyces aged in barrels,” says Chris Meyers, co-owner and vice president of Crane, about why the brewery has devoted so much space to barrel aging.
The brewery’s namesake and owner, Michael Crane, is a prominent figure in the home-brew scene: His sour beers and wild ales have won many home-brewing awards across the U.S. in the past five years, and anticipation for his production brewery and tasting room is widespread.
As part of its barrel-aging program, Crane received two brandy barrels from Nebraska Brewing Co. that were previously filled with Nebraska’s aged imperial stout, Sexy Betty, and released three separate beers aged in them: The first was Saison de Trois Sauvage, a saison made with three different Brettanomyces yeast varieties, which was then emptied and filled with a Brettanomyces and sour yeast rye saison, Wild Rye, which head brewer Steven Hood preferred. “Wild Rye was more tangy – it helps to have an extra layer of funk and complexity from wild or souring yeast to add contrast to the spirit character of the brandy,” he says.
The second brandy barrel was filled with Illmatic, a sour mango quad, where Brettanomyces and other souring bacteria spent 18 months getting busy, reacting to the brandy barrel’s compounds in a way that Hood says imparted tropical fruit and caramel notes to create a tart and rich beer.
Many breweries use barrel brokers to source barrels, who scour the worldwide barrel marketplace and relay its ever-changing availability to brewers. Typically, very little information about the history of barrels is provided, and with increasing competition in the industry, breweries are sometimes forced to take barrels in less-than-ideal conditions.
Used rum barrels, across the board, seem to arrive in the roughest shape, partially because many began as whiskey barrels before being repurposed for aging rum. The lush, smoky richness of a stout is strong enough to hold its own against the spirit, so when breweries purchase rum barrels, they often first use them for aging a stout before attempting riskier styles.
For example, Springfield Brewing Co. in Springfield, Missouri, chose to age its Russian imperial stout, Tsarry Night, in two separate barrels before combining the two batches to make the final beer. One batch was just aged in a rum barrel sourced from Colorado-based Montanya Distillers while the other batch was aged in a stainless steel barrel on currants and raisins to play off the vanilla and coconut flavors imparted by the rum barrel. The beer, named Signet 17, was released for the brewery’s 17th anniversary at the end of 2014.
“We didn’t want it to taste like a boilermaker,” says brewer and director of sales Colin Laursen. “Barrel-aged beers don’t all have to be over-the-top, kick-you-in-the-teeth boozy flavor. We really liked how the coconut aspect from the rum barrel and the sherry notes from the fruit lent a rich, island feel to the beer.”
In St. Louis, 4 Hands Brewing Co. is using Caribbean rum barrels to age its fourth-anniversary beer, a wheatwine (made with wheat malt) rather than a stout, with an anticipated January release. Each of 4 Hands’ previous anniversary beers were barrel-aged, and Caribbean rum barrels happened to be available right around the same time the wheatwine was being developed, according to 4 Hands brewery manager Martin Toft.
“It’s our first time using rum barrels, and we’re hoping to impart some of those coconut, raisin, caramel and spicy notes from the barrel,” Toft says.
The brewery is also aging its Opus Belgian saison with Earl Grey tea and orange peels in a gin barrel from Journeyman Distillery, as well as its imperial porter and Belgian dubbel in apple brandy barrels. These are just three beers being produced as part of the brewery’s 264-barrel program, which Toft says focuses heavily on wild and sour yeast projects.
Elsewhere in St. Louis, at Alpha Brewing Co., the barrel-aging program (dubbed BETA, an acronym for barreled, esoteric, tart and abstract) has produced 50 projects in 40 barrels in just two years, including its popular chocolaty version of a rum barrel-aged stout, Muscovy. Of the 14 taps at its Downtown tasting room, seven or eight are barrel-aged beers, which constantly rotate.
For owner and head brewer Derrick Langeneckert, experimenting with barrel aging is an addictive creative outlet, whether making a tequila barrel-aged imperial stout with notes of lemon, lime and chocolate, a Belgian dark ale Pear Cuvée aged in rum and bourbon barrels or a refreshing, lemony gin barrel-aged gose.
LIFE CYCLE OF A BARREL
The lack of used rum, tequila and brandy barrels on a reliable schedule and in manageable condition has some breweries turning to local distilleries. For two Missouri breweries, this has led to collaboration wherein the barrels are then cycled back to the distillery, and the process continues. The finished beers and spirits have more character because the barrels are being reconstituted with, rather than stripped of, flavor.
Case in point: 2nd Shift Brewing’s special release Hibiscus Wit is aged in gin barrels from acclaimed Pinckney Bend Distillery, both located in New Haven, Missouri.
“They give us the empty gin barrels the day they’re emptied,” says 2nd Shift co-owner Libby Crider. “What I love about Pinckney Bend’s gin is that it has a spicy and floral flavor, rather than sweet. The gin aging takes away a bit of the sweetness of our witbier and adds a spicy depth.”
The tart and refreshing Hibiscus Wit, made with orange peels and Curaçao, plus coriander and hibiscus flowers, was a top seller on its own, but the gin-barrel version was a huge success. Crider and her husband and brewery co-owner, Steve, have developed a program with Pinckney Bend where, after 2nd Shift’s beer is aged in the gin barrels and emptied, the brewery returns the barrels back to the distillery to produce a hibiscus gin. Once the gin is emptied, the barrel is then given back to 2nd Shift, and the cycle starts over. The partnership is currently on its third round.
In Springfield, a similar system of recycling barrels is happening at Mother’s Brewing Co. Its barrel-aging program is composed of five different projects in 150 barrels, and the brewery has a similar back-and-forth relationship with nearby Copper Run Distillery’s whiskey barrels to make its hopped-up unfiltered wheat, Sandy. “[We’re always experimenting with] smaller draft-only batches of this and that,” says Mother’s brewmaster Brian Allen.
David Soper, cellarman and cooper at Mother’s, says two of the coolest barrels used thus far were rum barrels from Nicaragua that were local in a roundabout way. The barrels previously housed whiskey, and each nail was engraved with “MO,” as they were made by Independent Stave Co. in Lebanon, Missouri.
“It was crazy to think about the barrels’ path from when they were made about an hour away from us in the early ‘90s, shipped around the world and now coming full circle back at our brewery,” Soper says.
In 2011, Mother’s created its first barrel-aged beer – a barleywine called Foggy Notion aged in sherry barrels sourced from Missouri wineries. The brewery has since used tequila, local port, brandy and other barrels for aging beer, including the fourth release of Squashed, a rum barrel-aged porter made with chocolate from Missouri producer Askinosie, butternut squash and pumpkin spice, coming out next month.
The process of aging beer in wooden barrels allows breweries another creative outlet for experimentation, another rabbit hole to explore, another world of character and aroma and complexity. Each develops its own microenvironment, its own microbatch, unpredictable and magical.
2nd Shift Brewing, 1401 Olive Road, New Haven, Missouri, 573.237.3421, 2ndshiftbrewing.com
4 Hands Brewing Co., 1220 S. Eighth St., LaSalle Park, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.436.1559, 4handsbrewery.com
Alpha Brewing Co., 1409 Washington Ave., Downtown, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.621.2337, alphabrewingcompany.com
Boulevard Brewing Co., 2501 Southwest Blvd., Greater Downtown, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.474.7095, boulevard.com
Crane Brewing Co., 6515 Railroad St., Raytown, Missouri, 816.352.6782, facebook.com/CraneBrewCo
Martin City Brewing Co., 500 E. 135th St., Martin City, Missouri, 816.268.2222, martincitybrewingcompany.com
Mother’s Brewing Co., 215 S. Grant Ave., Springfield, Missouri, 417.862.0423, mothersbrewing.com
Perennial Artisan Ales, 8125 Michigan Ave. #101, South Carondelet, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.631.7300, perennialbeer.com
Side Project Brewing, 7373 Marietta Ave., Maplewood, Missouri, 314.224.5211, sideprojectbrewing.com
Springfield Brewing Co., 305 S. Market Ave., Springfield, Missouri, 417.832.8277, springfieldbrewingco.com