Barrel aged beers are everywhere. I just finished thawing my extremities from the two day Freeze-Stravaganza that was the Michigan Brewer's Guild's 2015 Winter Beer Festival, and there was hardly a brewery that was not offering something that had once resided in a barrel. Bourbon or wine, sherry or maple syrup: these barrels are out there, and they are going to get filled. It is not just the professionals out there that are filling barrels, many homebrewers are purchasing their own, or chipping in for a barrel purchase for group homebrew club projects.
With that in mind, I would like to provide a compilation of barrel handling tips from Jay Goodwin, Head Brewer of the Rare Barrel in Berkley, CA. Jay is hosting a new show on The Brewing Network, the premiere source for high level (and free) online beer information on the web. On The Sour Hour Jay talks to top flight guests about the ins and outs of sour beer production, as well as dropping plenty of knowledge himself. Do yourself a favor and check out this podcast. Now let's roll out the barrels.
It is important to find a barrel supplier you can trust. Now is the time to dial up those industry connections you have and find out who among the areas barrel providers are reputable. Especially for the professional side folks, try and establish strong relationships with these providers as they are going to be the backbone of your beer aging program.
Do a visual inspection of the barrel inside and out. Make sure there are no items that have been added to the barrel that you will want to remove (oak spirals, any other flavoring agents, etc.) Once the barrel is free of these items, soak the heads of the barrels. Most of the leaks you are going to get are on the heads of the barrel. Put hot water on one head, and soak it over night. If it is not totally dry in the morning that side can be considered sealed. Flip the barrel over and soak the other side following the same procedure. If the barrel is not leaking, and you want the character of the last liquid in the barrel to carry over, then purge the vessel with CO2 and fill.
If you are not going to use the flavors of the previous barrel aged liquid, use the wet sulfur method. Rinse the barrel with hot water to help facilitate the barrels expansion. (Do not leave hot water in over night, as the water temperature will drop into a range that can favor mold growth, etc.) Then switch to a cold water fill. When the barrel proves to be sealed, add one pound of potassium metabisulfite and a half pound of citric acid mixed into the barrel full of cold water. This serves as a storage solution. This will protect the barrel from mold growth for the next six months before you have to replace the storage liquid.
*Side note: Do not burn a sulfur stick in the barrel. The possibility of the barrel exploding is very real.
It seems as if barrel aged beers, and especially sour beers, have become the next frontier in the beer world. The purpose of this post is to aid in disseminating some of the advice that can help us produce the beers we want to be making. Barrel handling and care may not be the sexiest part of the entire process, but it is a vital one. With that said, I would invite others to chime in with practices that they have learned, or with questions on the concepts previously listed. Once again, thanks to Jay Goodwin of the Rare Barrel for sharing so freely from his knowledge base, and to The Brewing Network for providing the avenue. Grab a bottle of Jay's beer any time you have the chance, and check out some of the amazing podcasts offered by the BN.
Drink good beer with good people!