Monday, January 23, 2012

Bourbon Barrel Project - Overview

My local homebrewing club, the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale, have been trying to organize a bourbon barrel project for several years now (photo from Barlow Brewing).  Aging beer in bourbon barrels has become a popular treatment in the craft beer industry.  The general process is to take a finished beer and transfer it to a used bourbon barrel.  The beer, which is often a stronger darker ale, is left in the barrel for a period of time, depending on the oak and bourbon character profile desired in the finished product.  When that time arrives, based on taste testing, the beer is transferred out of the barrel and moved to packaging.  At that time, a new beer is usually transferred into the barrel to keep it from drying out.  As subsequent batches of beer are moved through the barrel, aging time must increase to receive similar flavor characteristics because the oak and bourbon flavors gradually leach out of the barrel into the beer.  At a certain point, the barrel is deemed flavor-neutral and is either retired from service (i.e. cut in half for planters) or is used to make sour beers where the barrel is simply the place for the wild yeasts and bacteria to live.

The transfer and sale of bourbon barrels has long been a steady business in the United States.  This is because, by law, bourbon can only be made in new charred-oak barrels.  After the bourbon has been removed from the bottle, the barrel is usually sold to a barrel merchant, whose job is to arrange the sale of the used barrels and transport them to their new home.  Historically, these barrels were only used to age other types of spirits, such as Scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, tequila, and rum.  These beverages do not require the use of new oak barrels and their manufacturers could buy the used barrels for less and have a less aggressive oak character in the finished product.  In the last 10 years or so, the American craft brewing industry has become another purchasing stream in the bourbon barrel market.

Homebrewers are also interested in using bourbon barrels, but their size and cost are usually prohibitive and the homebrewer must settle with other oak products (cubes, chips, etc.) that have been soaked in bourbon before use.  New barrels are over 50 gallons in size and cost between $150 and $250 a barrel.  The same problems that face the individual homebrewer make bourbon barrels attractive projects for clubs.  The basic concept is that the homebrewing club can used its pooled resources to purchase a barrel and to find a place to store it.  The club can also assemble a number of brewers using the same recipe that can, collectively, fill the barrel.  In order to do this, the club must tackle, at least, the following issues:

  • Assemble enough interest to support the project and its associated costs
  • Collect the funds to purchase the barrel
  • Make arrangements with a barrel wholesaler to have the barrel delivered
  • Find a suitable location to store the barrel, as the barrel will not be easily movable once full
  • Assemble a list of brewers who will collectively fill the barrel, which can present an additional problem of winnowing down the list of interested brewers if there are too many to accommodate
  • Select a common recipe for the brewers to use and decide what, if any, variances are allowed in the recipe ingredients
  • Organize a group brew day, if desired, and a group filling day
  • Determine how long the beer will remain in the barrel and how to distribute it when the aging is done
  • Start the brewing process again to refill the barrel when the first batch is removed
Our club has been planning a bourbon barrel purchase for over a year now and things are finally coming to fruition.  I plan on doing several future posts covering our plans and their implementation, including the group brew day and filling day.  Stay tuned.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...