BBT ’16 Barrel Aging Q&A with Shawn Vail

BBT16QANEW_Shawn

To mark this week’s barreling of BBT 2016, I took a few minutes to chat with Shawn Vail, Head Brewer of Lakewood Brewing Co. He heads the company’s barrel aging program and is the authority on the matter here at LBC. He gave me a crash course in barrel aging, BBT, and all things round, wooden and filled with delicious, delicious beer.

  • What barrels are we using this year?

This year, we’re using bourbon barrels from Breckenridge Distillery. They’re new American oak barrels that have a pretty heavy char on the inside. When the coopers make the barrel, they extend the amount of time that they fire the inside to blacken the wood and create that charring: which is what gives bourbon its color and some of its flavor. Since bourbon has to be aged in new oak barrels, distillers sell the used barrels after they are emptied. Those barrels are great for aging beer in because the bourbon has soaked into the wood which imparts a nice bourbon and oak flavor when you age in them.

This years barrels were actually emptied two weeks ago, so they’re super fresh. That’s something that we always try to get, wet fresh barrels. We always like when the barrels are really damp when they come to us, because the residual spirit helps keep the barrel sanitary and minimizes leaking.

  • So, can we use these barrels more than once?

We can, although for BBT we always use fresh bourbon barrels. You get the strongest bourbon flavor from the first use. Second use you’ll still get some bourbon, but not nearly as much as on the first. We have used the barrels a second time, for  beers like Wild Manimal, after BBT was taken out of them. We don’t use them a third time. They’re pretty much neutral barrels by that point. After the second use, we sell them to people for non-brewing uses. Although, wine barrels hold up better than bourbon barrels for repeat uses. Since the inside is only toasted instead of fully charred, the wood inside of the barrel doesn’t flake off like it tends to do with a heavy bourbon char after repeated soakings.

  • What’s next? What do you have to do to actually put Temptress in? 

The Temptress needs to be fully fermented and crashed down to 50 degrees so that the yeast falls out of solution. When we get the barrels in we’ll swell the outsidesto make sure they won’t leak. Then we’ll purge the barrel with CO2 to try and remove as much oxygen as possible. You will get a little micro oxidation because wood is porous, but we do try to minimize our oxygen pickup as much as we can.

So we’ll purge with CO2, then hook up a sanitary hose to a barrel bulldog which goes into the barrel and fills from the bottom up. A bulldog is essentially a hollow stainless steel cane that has a bung and a hook up for CO2.  It’s primarily used for getting the beer out of the barrels by pressurizing the barrel with CO2, which forces the beer up the inside of the cane and into a tank. I like using it to fill barrels as well because the stainless is easy to clean and sanitize. Once the barrel is full, we pull the bulldog out and then put the bung in the barrel to seal the barrel.  Then we store it in a temperature controlled room and periodically taste is to see how it’s progressing. Once it’s ready to come out, we’ll use the bulldog to transfer it into a brite tank.

  • How long does it take for a beer to become properly barrel aged?

I like to have the beer in barrels at least 4 months, but the beer will dictate when it’s ready. You get a lot of the spirit or wine flavor from the barrel in the first couple of weeks. The rest of the time is more for developing complexity. You get a lot of secondary flavors from the oak coming through, and the flavors from the beer and the barrel are blending together. We’ve had beer that only needed to age for three months. Conversely, we had a barrel of La Dame du Bois (our wine barrel-aged Bière de Garde) age a year and a half before it was ready. We have a good guess usually, but the beer will kind of indicate when it’s done. With BBT specifically, I give at least a good six or seven months in-barrel for aging and mellowing.

  • So, once the beer is ready to go, what’s the next step?

Well, since BBT has a release date, we give it ample time in the barrel to make sure it’s ready. The closer we get to release, we do a final tasting (along with QC testing) to figure out which barrels we’re going to use. We like to use every barrel when possible, but sometimes there are one or two that don’t taste right or fail quality control, so we won’t use them.  After we have done our testing, we’ll transfer the beer from the barrels to a 100% BBT only brite tank with a bulldog. Once it’s in the brite tank, we’ll carbonate and then package it.

  • Explain to me why dry barrels are bad, besides the potential leaks.

With spirit barrels, as long as they’re wet or really damp on the inside, you shouldn’t get microbial growth. Anything stored inside is at cask strength (60-65% ABV) and strong enough to prevent anything from growing inside. So if we get the barrels in wet, that’s a good way to help ensure microbes and bacteria aren’t growing. There’s always a risk when putting beer into barrels that it could sour, but by using only wet barrels, we minimize that possibility.

  • Do you get anything from long term barrel aging? I think there’s this conception ‘of more is better’ and I’m sort of curious if there’s anything to that.

Beers that are usually aged in barrels typically have a higher alcohol content, which benefits from a bit of aging anyways. But extended aging really depends on the beer. Some beers do need extended aging. For example, I believe Utopias from Samuel Adams is aged for 10 years in barrels before it’s released, but it’s also a 20+% ABV beer.  At a certain point, every beer does peak. As a brewer, you just try and figure out what that is for each beer and make sure that it’s getting to the consumer before it’s past its prime.

  • So, it doesn’t need to be in a barrel for 18 months if it was good after 6. I guess you get diminishing returns at a point?

It’s possible. Knowing that a lot of consumers will continue cellaring the beer in the bottle, we try to get the beer out of the barrel when it is tasting delicious, but still has some aging potential. Ultimately, it just comes down to when the beer is ready. It might take months, it might take years. Temptress comes out really good after the 6- 8 months that we age it, but in my opinion it peaks a year or two after coming out of the barrel, so it’s good to drink now and it’s good to drink later.

  • What is it about stouts that lends itself to bourbon barrel aging so well? Is it just a function of the ABV or is there something else in the style that does that?

It’s kind of both. It’s partly because a lot of stouts are higher alcohol beers. And it’s partly because the roasty, chocolatey and coffee flavors work so well with the bourbon notes. Some of the roasty characters from the malt mellows with aging and becomes a lot smoother. But in general, most high alcohol beers benefit from a little aging and are good candidates for going into barrels.

  • What do you get out of the bourbon barrel aging process you wouldn’t by adding the bourbon or the wood aging separately?

Aside from the fact we can’t legally fortify our beer with spirits, you mean?  It’s the extra depth. When adding each element separately, you don’t get the complementary flavors that the bourbon and the oak give each other. You add bourbon, you get bourbon. It’s a boilermaker. You could age your beer with oak chips or staves, which would work, but you’d get a lot of oakiness coming from them. That intense oak flavor hasn’t been extracted by the original spirit, so it’s a lot more in your face. Using the two together would get you sort of close, but it wouldn’t be the same as using a barrel.

  • When does the angel’s share start kicking in, and does that affect aging?

It essentially starts as soon as we barrel. Again, they are porous… so they allow water to evaporate. Volume loss isn’t really noticeable for at least a month or two, depending on climate. We’ve got a fairly humid climate here so it doesn’t actually affect us as badly as other regions, though we do assume a loss. It’s a small enough amount that we don’t need to top off during the process, though.

  • Any last words for the readers out there?

Barrel-aging takes a lot of time, planning, and patience, but the results are definitely worth it.  It’s amazing to see what flavors come out of the barrels, and every barrel is different.  With all of the different types of spirit and wine barrels available (bourbon, rum, scotch, tequila, red wines, white wines, etc) we have yet another facet where we can be creative and release a really unique product. It’s what excites us about brewing and aging beer.