Gear­head: The Wine Wand

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By John M. Verive

When it comes to mak­ing bar­rel-aged beers, a grow­ing num­ber of brew­eries are look­ing to wine pro­duc­ers and their tools to help with the process. The Bull­dog Pup is a spe­cial­ized rack­ing cane that uses gas pres­sure to gen­tly push liq­uid out of a bar­rel with­out the ag­i­ta­tion and pos­si­ble oxy­gena­tion that pump­ing can some­times cause.


Val­ley north of Los An­ge­les, there’s a brew­ery that casts a shadow, fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally, on the lo­cal land­scape: the An­heuser-busch plant opened in 1954, oc­cu­py­ing a ninety-fouracre swath of the city of Van Nuys.

Tanks and si­los are eas­ily vis­i­ble from the nearby free­way. Rail­road tracks criss­cross the neigh­bor­ing streets bring­ing ma­te­ri­als to the 1.7 mil­lion-square-foot brew­ery. Some 275 trucks visit daily to pick up the more than thirty brands of beer brewed un­der the AB um­brella. The Bud Light is beech­wood aged in 4,000bar­rel lager­ing tanks; there are six­teen such tanks in the cel­lar. The plant makes beer on an in­dus­trial scale.

One mile away at Cel­lador Ales, the beer is made very dif­fer­ently: one bar­rel at a time. Founded by hus­band and wife team Kevin and Sara Os­borne in 2014, Cel­lador was built as an out­let for cre­ative en­ergy and en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit.

All the beer made at Cel­lador is fer­mented in oak, and the small brew­ery space is filled wall-to-wall and floor-torafters with stacks of mostly wine bar­rels sourced from Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Coast with a few choice spirit bar­rels mixed in. No stain­less-steel fer­men­tors or brew­house is in sight, and all the wort is pro­duced off-site. Much of the beer is re- fer­mented with fruit sourced from around Cal­i­for­nia, and ev­ery­thing from sour cher­ries to heir­loom va­ri­eties of peaches from the renowned Ma­sumoto Fam­ily Farm to car­rots fla­vor Cel­lador beer. Get­ting all that fruit into wine bar­rels re­quires some spe­cial tools (namely a restau­rant-grade im­mer­sion blender and a pow­er­ful juicer), but it’s get­ting the fin­ished beer out of the bar­rels that’s the real trick.

A Page from the Wine­maker’s Book

Like so many of the bar­rels that Cel­lador re­lies on for fer­men­ta­tion, the tool they use to get the beer out of those bar­rels also orig­i­nated in wine coun­try. The Bull­dog Pup is a spe­cial­ized rack­ing cane that uses gas pres­sure to gen­tly push liq­uid out of a bar­rel with­out the ag­i­ta­tion and pos­si­ble oxy­gena­tion that pump­ing can some­times cause.

De­signed by Don Oth­man, who founded Bull­dog Man­u­fac­tur­ing as a mo­bile metal shop to ser­vice the bur­geon­ing Cen­tral Coast wine in­dus­try in 1975, the Pup was cre­ated to meet the needs of Cal­i­for­nia pinot noir pro­duc­ers. In the mid-eight­ies, the finicky pinot noir grapes con­founded wine­mak­ers who strug­gled with oxy­gena­tion and de­cided tra­di­tional rack­ing meth­ods were too vi­o­lent for the del­i­cate pinot juice. A wine­maker asked Oth­man for a bet­ter way to trans­fer the pinot and pre­vent ox­i­da­tion, and he be­gan to de­velop an al­ter­na­tive.

The Pup was in­tro­duced in 1986 and was a hit among Cal­i­for­nia’s pinot pro­duc­ers. Soon word spread, and winer­ies from around the globe were or­der­ing the cus­tom-fab­ri­cated wands from Oth­man. The im­proved rack­ing cane fea­tures a few new tricks: An ex­pand­ing sil­i­cone bung cre­ates the seal needed to pres­sur­ize the bar­rel, and an in­te­grated sight­glass and ad­just­ment sleeve al­low for the cane’s in­let to be placed just above the lees in the bar­rel. Wine­mak­ers use in­ert and in­ex­pen­sive ni­tro­gen to pres­sur­ize bar­rels to be­tween 10–15 PSI. It’s a sim­ple de­sign ex­e­cuted well, and the Oth­mans say they’ve sold thou­sands of Pups to winer­ies in ev­ery wine-pro­duc­ing coun­try on the planet.

Some time in the nineties, brew­ers be­gan call­ing. Oth­man helped build Fire­stone Walker’s orig­i­nal brew­house in Los Olivos, Cal­i­for­nia, and parts of the Pup were ac­tu­ally re­pur­posed into the orig­i­nal Fire­stone Union man­i­fold. (For more about the Fire­stone Walker Union man­i­fold, see “Sour Union,” Craft Beer & Brew­ing Mag­a­zine®, Au­gust/septem­ber 2017.) As craft brew­ers be­gan their ex­plo­rations in oak, they found a need for a pump­less rack­ing so­lu­tion as well, and wine­mak­ers told them about the Pup. Don Oth­man’s wife and busi­ness part­ner, Gwen Oth­man, says she thinks New Bel­gium was the first craft brew­ery to ask for a Pup. Gas pres­sure rack­ing arms—both the Pup and its im­i­ta­tors—are now stan­dard equip­ment

at craft brew­eries mov­ing a lot of liq­uid through oak bar­rels.

A Go-to Tool

At Cel­lador, ev­ery beer is in and out of bar­rels, onto and off of fruit—some­times sev­eral times be­fore it’s bot­tled—and Os­borne knew that he needed a bul­let­proof so­lu­tion that would be easy on the beer and easy to wran­gle by him­self.

“Our phi­los­o­phy when start­ing out was to do ev­ery­thing as man­u­ally and nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble,” Os­borne says. “I’m re­ally wor­ried about oxy­gen pick-up—es­pe­cially at the late stages. I don’t want to mess with pumps.”

Cel­lador was built to be a small-vol­ume wild-ale brew­ery that could take ad­van­tage of both Cal­i­for­nia’s non­pareil pro­duce and L.A.’S es­ca­lat­ing thirst for sour beer. The Pup was a go-to tool al­most from day one of the brew­ery.

Os­borne’s Pup has seen bet­ter days. It’s worn from use and doesn’t seal bar­rels as firmly as it once did, but ev­ery beer he’s made over two-plus years has trav­eled through it. He demon­strated the process while work­ing on the brew­ery’s sec­ond-an­niver­sary beer.

The bar­rels se­lected for the blend are ar­ranged on the limited floor space in prepa­ra­tion for fill­ing his blend­ing tank. He purges the tank, all the hoses, and the Pup with CO2 and in­serts the rack­ing cane into the bung­hole of the first bar­rel. A twist of the brass sleeve above the Pup’s bung tight­ens the cane into place, and Os­borne locks it down with a pair of ratchet straps. He sets the wall-mounted CO2 gas reg­u­la­tor to 10 PSI (he uses a lit­tle less pres­sure when trans­fer­ring beer from a fruited bar­rel) and slowly opens the in­let valve on the Pup while hold­ing a flash­light to the sight­glass.

He ad­justs the depth of the cane to get a clear flow, then stands back for the five min­utes it takes the bar­rel to drain. Af­ter fill­ing bar­rels, it’s the eas­i­est step in Cel­lador’s whole pro­duc­tion.

Cel­lador’s pro­duc­tion is based on wood fer­men­ta­tions with mixed cul­tures, and it fea­tures a bounty of fruit (and some­times veg­etable) ad­di­tions, but there is lit­tle stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure beyond the me­chan­ics of trans­fer­ring liq­uid among tote, bar­rels, and blend­ing tank (and of­ten back to bar­rels and back to tank) and into bot­tles.

Os­borne says he learned blend­ing and wild-ale pro­duc­tion “by just jump­ing into it at the brew­ery,” and Cel­lador’s ales are some of the best mixed-fer­men­ta­tion beer be­ing made in Los An­ge­les right now. Ex­per­i­men­ta­tions with pitch­ing bot­tle dregs into car­boys in his home­brew days led to the di­verse col­lec­tion of ma­ture colonies of micro­organ­isms that live at Cel­lador (still housed in those same 5-gal­lon car­boys).

He started ex­per­i­ment­ing with wood in a quar­ter cask–sized whiskey bar­rel, and that bar­rel is still at Cel­lador among the 150 other wine and spirit bar­rels. Os­borne works from in­spi­ra­tion and in­stinct. His process is nim­ble and al­lows for quick re­ac­tions to find­ing great pro­duce, how liq­uid de­vel­ops in the bar­rels, and visits from the muses. Pa­tience, an eye for de­tail, a sharp palate, and an open­ness to in­spi­ra­tion are Os­borne’s most im­por­tant tools, but right af­ter that, there’s the Bull­dog Pup.

Left » Os­borne vis­ually checks beer as it’s racked us­ing the built-in sight­glass.

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