I thought it was about time for an update on the Jack Of All Brews barrel experience! Our red wine barrel arrived ahead of schedule, resulting in us scrambling a bit to get things organized. We came up with a recipe for a Bier de Garde, a malty but earthy and sometimes funky French farmhouse style arising in the area bordering on Belgium. We felt that this style would be a good showcase for the red wine and wood flavors from the barrel and I think this was a fantastic choice looking back. Andrew needed to keep the barrel moist with water while we all brewed up the beer that would eventually take up residence within. Some of the wine character was lost by this process, but we needed to keep a tight seal on the barrel staves or risk leakage and infection of our future beer. Keep in mind that this is a 55 gallon beast that is quite difficult to move when empty and nigh impossible when full. The most difficult part of the entire process was really the coordination of getting all the folks who were interested in taking part: getting the beers brewed and then getting all of those beers together in one place!
When all was finally prepared a group of us including Andrew, Keith, Joe, Mike L., Mark G., myself and Sj met in Andrew's basement to fill this bad boy! There was a brief tasting where we sampled each beer that was to go into the wood. Taking a cue from the guys at Nordeast Brewers Alliance (who have been working on multiple barrels) we used the two-thumbs down rule: if two of us gave the beer a thumbs down, it would not make it into the barrel. This is important to prevent putting a sour or infected beer in with all the others and essentially ruining the entire 55 gallon batch! Most of the beers tasted similar with only one beer garnering a single thumbs-down. We debated this a bit but decided that the flavors we were picking up were yeast derived and not infection. We then took turns racking beer from the collection of plastic and glass carboys into the now empty barrel. We of course drank some of Andrew's beer whilst doing this. We ended up a bit short on beer, and in order to decrease the oxygen containing head space in the barrel added several gallons of Andrew's Belgian Dark Strong to the mix. Since the base beer was fairly simple, we thought that this would only increase complexity and not drastically influence the entire beer.
Once all the beers were safely ensconced in their new wooden home, we left Andrew to clean up our mess. As self-assigned cellar master, he would then periodically sample the beer to decide when it was ready.
Last month the pioneers of the barrel project met again at Andrew's home fermentery to drain the barrel. At first this was easy, but as the level of beer dropped, the height differential between the empty carboy and the barrel decreased--resulting in a very slow siphon. They were able to lift up the barrel as it became lighter and stack some wooden planks beneath it to continue the process. I had to leave early to pick up Sj from the airport and missed all the heavy lifting...so sad!
The final product was an interesting beer to say the least!
Aroma: Hints of toffee and sweetness with a spice (nutmeg, cardamom?) tinge. Slight fruity esters as it warms. A bit of alcohol possibly.
Appearance: Deep mahogany amber color with a mild haziness. Fine white head that fades to edge of glass quickly.
Flavor/mouthfeel: Has an initial maltiness but is not nearly as sweet as the aroma would lead one to believe. This has a similar spicy flavor that hinted at in the aroma. There is a red wine tannic note as it warms that results in a dry and slightly astringent finish. This evens out the sweetness nicely. There is a bit of alcohol warming but does not seem too boozy.
Impression: A very complex beer that has sweetness and spiciness as well as an earthy and tannic finish. An interesting take on the Bier de Garde style, but would fit equally well as a spiced Old Ale.
Once one has a barrel, you want to keep using it! With most of the wood character leached out into the wine and then the JAB de Garde, we didn't think that much would be added by doing another regular beer. So the third life of this barrel will be to house a sour beer! This time we came up with a ball-park recipe for a lambic using some wheat and pilsner or 2-row malt with a bit of malto-dextrin. Most of the brewers just used a regular clean American ale yeast for the primary fermentation. I used the Wyeast Lambic blend for both of mine, while Andrew used a mixed culture of yeasts from Cantillon and a couple other famous lambic producers that he has been propagating over the past year. The base beer for this one is pretty simple with most of the unusual flavors derived from the wild yeasts and bacteria.
Again organizing the process of brewing and gathering was the hard part! But thanks to the JAB facebook group we made it happen. Most of the folks were not able to show up to the filling session, but were able to drop off their beers before that, so we had everything present. The actual fill was just Andrew, Ben D., Janelle, Sj and myself. No problem! Filling is easier than emptying! While sipping on Bruery Batch 50 Grand Funk Aleroad, we drained carboy after carboy into the waiting barrel. We were not as concerned this time about mild infections or off flavor since we would be introducing quite a mélange of funk to this brew. At the end, Andrew gently poured in the swirled yeast dregs from that wonderful sour beer and popped in the bung. This is the last we will see of the beer for possibly a year or more. Andrew plans on driving a nail into the barrel below the level of the liquid which can be removed every 4-6 months to taste the product without disturbing the pellicle on top and introducing too much oxygen to the brew. The delayed gratification of waiting this long to taste the finished beer is going to be the most difficult part! We could still use another 5 gallons to fill the head space and then another 5 gallons to fill in the angel's share over the coming year, so if anyone already has some ready or wants to still get in on the action, there is time yet!