Wednesday, March 16, 2016
In January of 2015, at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out, one of the biggest and baddest homebrew competitions around, I ended up talking to another beer judge Scot Schaar. Scot is a distiller for the Mississippi River Distilling Company out of LeClaire, Iowa. The distillery opened in 2010, and Scot has been bringing bottles of their spirits for the UMMO charity silent auction for years. I've always wondered what the whiskey tasted like, but have never gone out of my way to look for it. That year, I discovered that Scot had brought some small used oak barrels with him on this trip and that a few had not been claimed. So I found myself in a chilly darkened parking lot hefting a heavy oaken barrel while my wife (giving me a significantly dirty look) handed this fine fellow a wad of cash. On the barrel head so to speak...
The barrel is a 15 gallon oaken affair that previously held the Cody Road Rye Whiskey for approximately 14 months. The rye grain for this spirit is grown in Illinois (my home state). Typical larger producers of whiskeys and bourbons use 55 gallon barrels, but with the advent of smaller craft distilleries they've started using smaller barrels as well. These are much more accessible to us homebrewers since we don't have to brew up 55 gallons of beer to fill one! One reason distilleries use these smaller barrels is their increased surface area to volume ratio: a smaller barrel has more spirit in direct contact with the oaken walls. This results in faster color and flavor transfer from the oak into the spirit. Single malt Scotch is usually aged for 10+ years since they're using already "used" American bourbon or whiskey barrels. So by using a smaller freshly charred barrel, distilleries can get a drinkable spirit out to market without waiting for 3-5 years. This particular barrel was crafted at The Barrel Mill in close-by Avon, Minnesota from North American white oak.
What to use to fill this special barrel? I went with an old stand-by, the only beer I brew every year: Olde Meconium Imperial Stout. I've used oak chips and cubes in this beer before with mixed results, but have always wanted to try it in a genuine barrel to see if the results would differ. My usual batch size for this beer is 6 gallons and it pushes the very limits of capacity for my 10 gallon brew system. Olde Meconium is my most challenging beer to brew and I had no desire to brew it three times to fit in the barrel! Luckily I managed to talk my friend and fellow Jack Of All Brews member Mike Lebben into helping me out. Both of us did a modified version of the beer, adding some dry malt extract to the boil to be able to do an 8 gallon batch each.
This was the first time I had brewed since the previous November, and after new shelving had been built in my garage. As a result, I spent a fair amount of time digging out equipment, refilling propane tanks, etc. Not my smoothest or quickest batch ever. I hit pretty close to my goal gravity though. Fermentation went well, split between two carboys. The 5 gallon batch I fermented with American ale yeast, and the 3 gallon batch with Nottingham ale yeast. I've brewed this beer with both and thought combining the two might give me a flavor profile somewhere in between the two. And I had those yeast already in my fridge, so why not?
One week in, Mike and I got together to fill the barrel up. I found a spot for it under the stairs in the basement where it would be out of the way and have fairly consistent cool temperatures. Both of our batches were still fermenting slightly with bubbles coming every 5-10 seconds, but I was concerned about how dry the barrel was getting and didn't want to wait much longer before filling it. Once we added the beer--right up to the bung--it started to foam out at us! I hooked up an improvised blow-off tube to avoid Imperial stout all over the walls!
After about 8 weeks in the barrel we tasted it and decided it was time to take out the beer. The hardest part of that process? Trying to lift the full barrel up high enough to siphon beer out of it! My friend Rob Wengler helped me muscle it up on top of my kegerator for this event, risking hernia for the sake of beer! Rob and I had actually brewed an English brown porter in the intervening weeks and that beer was ready to add now. We moved the now lighter empty barrel back to its home in the closet and added our porter. I did not rinse the barrel, wanting to keep what little whiskey character remained for this second and much smaller beer. I regret that now! Once the beer had been in the barrel for 12 hours it started to ferment again, bubbling over the airlock and making me hook up the blow-off tube again. I'm not sure if there was some residual unfermented sugar in the beer, or if the quantity of healthy yeast left in the barrel just kicked back into gear, but it kept fermenting away for another several days before slowing down.
The idea was to leave this beer in for about a month and then fill it for the final time with the base beer for a lambic sour that would then sit around for 1-2 years getting funkier. I did get my part of the batch brewed up, but had a hard time getting help for the second half. Then life got busy with summer travel plans and time slipped away from me. I eventually brewed up a second batch of lambic wort, but the porter stayed in there a bit too long. When I tasted it, the beer had a strong oak tannin character as well as a hint of sourness. Oops! I ended up transferring the porter out into glass carboys and adding some dregs of Flanders red ales. Those are coming along nicely now with a slowly developing complexity of sourness and creepy looking pellicle.
This time I dumped out the old yeast and rinsed out the inside of the barrel. I quickly (before the staves could dry out and shrink) filled it again with my two batches of lambic. I actually fermented the lambic wort in glass carboys with an American ale yeast first, but added 2 packs of Wyeast Lambic Blend yeast and some dregs from a bottle of Cantillon to the barrel. I did get a kick-up of fermentation within 2 days that lasted for another week or so before settling down. I just tried this beer and the sourness and brett character are starting to show up, but still pretty subtle. This may live in the barrel for a year or longer.
The need to keep the barrel filled, and to plan ahead with brewing beers to fill it is the most difficult aspect of using it. Since nearly all commercial barrels are big (most 55 gallons) you nearly always need help filling it and getting multiple people to brew according to a timeline is tough! Even using a small barrel can be a pain, and requires some planning ahead and collaboration.
As a wrap-up, our first batch from this barrel--Barrel Aged Olde Meconium--won a gold medal at this year's Mashout! Thanks to Scot for getting me that barrel, and to Mike for helping me brew this beast! I do think this is the best beer I've ever brewed and the level of complexity from the barrel itself goes far above what I've been able to do with booze soaked oak cubes in the past. This was an interesting experiment, and one I'd recommend, but taking care of a barrel is a bit of a chore.