The following post is going to be the first of a 3 post series about barrels. In this installment we’ll cover some barrel basics. Part 2 will cover how to use a barrel for aging your home brew, and Part 3 will cover some troubleshooting should you neglect your barrels, as I did. Enjoy!
You may have noticed more and more beers hitting the scene that are “barrel aged” or “barrel fermented”, but what does it all mean? Why go through all the work of making a beer, just to put it in a musty old barrel? Follow along, friend.
First of all, barrel aging and barrel fermenting are not the same thing:
Barrel Aging: This is when a brewery places a beer which has completed fermentation into a barrel to obtain some of the flavors within the barrel. Flavor outcome depends heavily on what the barrel was once used for. Whiskey, bourbon, wine, rum, etc all impart their own intricate flavors to the finished beer. Beyond what liquid previously occupied the barrels, the brewer can also impart oak flavors from the wood itself. Lastly, barrel aging can also contribute desirable tang/farmhouse flavors to a beer due to the presence of microbiological cultures (such as Brettanomyces, often referred to as just “Brett”).
Barrel Fermenting: This is when the fermentation process itself takes place within the barrel. Though most common in wine making (especially white wine), brewers are now experimenting with barrel fermentation as well. Like barrel aging, barrel fermenting allows some of the qualities of the barrel to incorporate into the beer.
So there you go, a very basic primer on the difference between these two terms we hear more and more. Now that you understand these processes, let’s back up and talk about the barrels themselves and where to get them.
Barrels come in all sorts of sizes. I’ve seen them as small as one liter, and up to 60+ gallons. Barrels are made by taking staves of wood (oak), super-heating them, bending them into their ovular from, and binding them together with metal rings.
Staves being bound by some first rings
The barrel interior is then “toasted” with flame, which causes the sugars in the wood to caramelize. Then, more flame is used to produce an even charcoal layer on the inside of the barrel.
Applying flame to the barrel interior
Barrels usually come in three char varieties — light, medium and dark — which all impart their own flavor and color on the liquid being stored/fermented in the barrel.
Cross section showing barrel char
Wine/Whiskey/Rum/Tequilla etc producers use barrels as an integral part of producing their products due to the distinct oak flavors and tannins the barrels impart. The catch, though, is that the wood flavor only lasts a few batches — meaning that after one or two uses, the barrel must be replaced with a fresh one. Where does the old barrel go?
There are dozens of companies (like this one, or this one) which offer spent barrels collected from distilleries. Many brewers also work directly with the wine/whiskey producer to get their barrels. As a home-brewer, you too can experiment with barrel aging. It’s a lot of fun and I think it’s kind of cool having barrels around.
That about does it for the first installment. Hopefully you’ve learned a little something about barrels and their uses. Check back tomorrow for how you can utilize used barrels to make some amazing barrel aged home brew.
Here’s the next installment – Prepping your barrel