Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bourbon Barrel Project - Group Brew Day

My local homebrewing club, the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale (CAMRA), is currently in the middle of a group bourbon barrel project.  The general idea is that purchasing and filling a large bourbon barrel is daunting for an individual, but a great group project for a homebrewing club.  Our club planned this purchase for over a year and is now preparing to fill the barrel.  An overview of the process, along with some ideas for other clubs to consider when buying and using a barrel, can be found in a previous post.

One of the goals of the CAMRA barrel project was to truly make it a group experience.  Once the brewers were selected to participate in the project, we debated what recipe to use.  The general parameters of recipe choice focused primarily on beer styles that would age well in a barrel.  In particular, the selected recipe would have to handle a substantial bourbon character.  The barrel we purchased came straight from the distillery and still had a small amount of bourbon in it.  As such, the wood was still saturated with bourbon and will add a decent amount of bourbon and oak flavor, even with a short aging time.  As the barrel experiences subsequent fillings, less bourbon and oak flavor will come out of the wood and require longer aging times.  Initial recipes all focused on darker stronger beers, particularly porters and stouts.  Several brewers suggested Denny Conn's Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter, which they had brewed and loved.  The group decided on that recipe and moved forward with planning a group brew day.

In early January, a number of us gathered a club member's house for the group brew session.  The brewer turn-out was less than originally expected because of the weather.  While Central Virginia has experienced a mild winter this year, the early morning of brew day saw a minor ice storm that made some roads difficult traverse (I barely made it up the hill near our house).  The weather and cold temperatures made several members brew at their own houses, but we still had three brewers and two helpers gather together for the brew day.  We enjoyed the warm welcome and fantastic brews of our host and had a great time (thanks, Evan!).  The cold weather even dramatically increased the efficiency of our wort chillers.

Group brew days are one of my favorite parts of the homebrewing hobby.  They allow brewers to socialize and enjoy each others company and homebrews.  Given that homebrewing equipment and processes vary dramatically, group brew days also provide people the opportunity to see how others brew and take ideas to improve their own processes.  These benefits, in my opinion, make group brew days worth the inconvenience of lugging equipment around and operating in different environments and difficult circumstances.

Personally, I was low on my original gravity on brew day.  But, the beer has fermented out well and is tasting clean and smooth.  I am looking forward to filling the barrel with the group's efforts and seeing what comes out on the other side.



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