Know­ing the Ways of the Wine Bar­rel

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

Jef­fers Richard­son of Fire­stone Walker Bar­rel­works ex­plains what to ex­pect when work­ing with wood that once housed vino.

Jef­fers Richard­son, the bar­rel mas­ter of Fire­stone Walker Bar­rel­works (Buell­ton, Cal­i­for­nia), ex­plains how us­ing wine bar­rels for beer has evolved and what they look for and ex­pect when work­ing with wood that once housed vino.

WHEN I FIRST STARTED in 1995, the brew­ery was part of the Fire­stone Win­ery. We were get­ting rid of hun­dreds of wine bar­rels. A lot were be­ing turned into planter boxes, and I ac­tu­ally spent time con­vinc­ing the co­founders that it was a bad idea to make our first beer in re­tired wine bar­rels. There was no mar­ket for wild or sour beers at that time, and we didn’t want the mi­croflo­rae. I con­vinced the own­ers that if we were go­ing to make “clean” beer aged in wood, we needed new bar­rels that had never been used. Fast­for­ward 22 years, and we have a whole pro­gram that uses wine bar­rels, the same kind that we got rid of all those years ago. Funny how things change.

Wine bar­rels are a ves­sel, but they are also an in­gre­di­ent. A wine bar­rel is a liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment of mi­croflo­rae that helps us cre­ate the beers that we want to taste. When we brew with wine bar­rels, we’re not al­ways look­ing for the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wine that was once housed in­side. If we wanted some­thing that was heavy on the in­flu­ence of the fruit, we’d get juice, must, crushed skins, or the raw in­gre­di­ents; that would im­part true wine char­ac­ter. But

when we fer­ment and ma­ture beer in wine bar­rels, re­ally we’re look­ing for the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mi­croflo­rae and oak.

In se­lect­ing bar­rels, a cou­ple of things are ob­vi­ous. If the in­side of the bar­rel smells like vine­gar, you’re likely go­ing to get a beer that has those aro­mas and fla­vors, and that’s not al­ways de­sir­able. Also, in Cal­i­for­nia, there’s a bee­tle that likes to bore into the wood of bar­rels, par­tic­u­larly those that winer­ies have stored out­doors. We don’t want to bring those into the bar­rel room, so we try to keep away from bar­rels like that. A vis­ual and sen­sory in­spec­tion is im­por­tant. The bar­rel may have been left dry for some time, so you may need to re­hy­drate the bar­rel, swell it up and stop any leak­ing.

We are mov­ing to­ward more neu­tral oak in our wine bar­rels so that our bugs have a nice and con­sis­tent habi­tat in which to do their things, and less oak ex­trac­tion. There is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ter­roir and the bar­rel that is a fer­men­ta­tion dy­namic.

You can use a wine bar­rel to make just about any kind of beer, but you re­ally need to think be­fore­hand: what’s the goal? You could make a helles, but why? For us, the goal is to im­part some acid­ity, wild-yeast char­ac­ter­is­tics, or a lit­tle oak pro­file that a wine bar­rel might have had be­fore it was re­tired. Wine is gen­er­ally in the 12 to 14 per­cent ABV range, so you have mi­croflo­rae that sur­vive in a way that they won’t in high-proof spir­its bar­rels.

I’m some­times asked why use a bar­rel at all, with all the ad­vances or prod­ucts avail­able? I think there is a sense of ro­mance to it, some ad­ven­ture. And a bar­rel breaths! In the re­tired wine bar­rels, Ace­to­bac­ter, lac­tic acid bac­te­ria and even Bret­tanomyces can sur­vive af­ter they are empty. That will in­flu­ence the char­ac­ter of beer in­side, for bet­ter or for worse.

Usu­ally, we kick-start our bar­rel fer­men­ta­tions with a few of our mixed cul­tures (I call them cock­tails). We in­oc­u­late af­ter rack­ing into bar­rels (af­ter pri­mary fer­men­ta­tion). This helps us get to where we want to be with the fin­ished prod­uct.

But there are still some things that we don’t know; we don’t un­der­stand all the re­ac­tions hap­pen­ing in the bar­rel over months or years: There are many re­ac­tions tak­ing place in the bar­rel that pro­duce dif­fer­ent fla­vors and aro­mas. We’re not even aware of all the mi­croflo­rae that are in the bar­rels. We know a hand­ful of them, but there are some we have not iden­ti­fied. But it all be­comes part of the habi­tat of the bar­rel and the beer. Even­tu­ally when it’s ready, we can de­cide whether or not we like it, whether we want to blend it, or whether we have to let it go. Those are the op­tions. One must be pa­tient, have time for trial and er­ror, and be will­ing to dump it if it doesn’t live up to the stan­dards and goals you set.

Wine bar­rels are a ves­sel, but they are also an in­gre­di­ent. When we brew with wine bar­rels, we’re not al­ways look­ing for the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the wine that was once housed in­side... re­ally we’re look­ing for the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mi­croflo­rae and oak.

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