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Dripping in This Strange Design

IMG_7143So… there’s been quite a lot of talk at Straight to the Pint about barrel-aging and cellaring and bacteria and all kinds of weird stuff with long names that you don’t normally associate with beer. We admit — we didn’t fully get it at first, either. We’ve been reporting on it faithfully, but it’s kinda like being stuck in a conversation about Game of Thrones with an attractive member of the opposite sex when you couldn’t get beyond the third episode: you’re really just trying to look as good as possible without embarrassing yourself too much.

Beer definitely helps in both of those situations. Mostly, it helps if the other person has had a few too many Sawyer Swaps.

So, we got together with Head Brewer Brian Hink — this is his baby, after all — and Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm to try to make sense of all of this. Namely: what does barrel-aging do?

We’re pretty sure that everyone reading this is familiar with wood. It’s that stuff that literally grows on trees. It’s porous — meaning that air molecules can get through it — and it has gagillions of little nooks and crannies for wonderful bacteria and other microorganisms to flourish and grow like SimCity on Cheetah speed. Barrels, as you’re probably aware, are made of this stuff.

Steel, on the other hand, has none of those things. It doesn’t grow on trees. It’s not porous. It has zero nooks, very few crannies, BUT that doesn’t mean that sterilization is easy. If one little microorganism gets into a steel fermenter, it could have a huge bacteria party (Hell, why not? We just gave it a boatload of beer…) and multiply and contaminate the entire batch. This is not a good thing. This is why we’ve opened a dedicated sour brewery — so that those crazy microorganisms that cause a beer to sour can have a home of their own and multiply like bunnies.

So, we got a bunch of used wine barrels. Yes, used. When it comes to brewing, these things aren’t like cars — newer is most definitely not better. You want them used and abused because the flavors of whatever had previously been inside — whether bourbon, cognac, rum, or, as in the case of The Keel, red wine — are going to leech into the beer. And, since red wine is almost as good as our IPA — almost — that’s a good thing. A really good thing.

Also, that small amount of oxygen that the barrel lets in… changes the beer. It oxygenates. It’s essentially the same chemical process that causes rust — the oxygen combines with various chemicals already present in the beer and out pops some sort of acid. “For example,” Jimmy says, “acetaldehyde, which is present in most beers, although usually at a concentration below the flavor threshold, can be oxidized to acetic acid over time in the presence of oxygen.”

The oxygen also lets those little microorganisms go crazy. You know how you need oxygen in order to live? Well… that’s one thing you have in common with a bacterium. (We won’t go into the others.) Normally, oxygen is the Lex Luthor of beer. (Beer is definitely Superman. Definitely.)

“Like any food product,” Brian says, “oxygen is the enemy and will cause beer to go stale. In a barrel-aged beer with the lactic acid-producing bacteria, and the acetic acid-producing bacteria present, the micro-oxygenation allows for drastically different levels of acid production than the normal closed system of a stainless steel fermenter.”

TA-DA! Sour. Really, really sour.

This is why we wanted to put The Keel in barrels. Better sour flavors, some beautiful red wine flavors, some oakiness from the wood… it’s all combined to make this a truly special brew.

Furthermore, swimming in this real thing we call The Keel are some twenty different little microorganisms (including five varieties of Brettanomyces), this was one helluva pitch to start off these barrels with. Recontaminating things actually makes our lives a lot easier.

Now that you know all there is to know about barrel-aging — at least, you know what we know — what’s the deal with cellaring?

Well, The Keel is a bottle conditioned beer. This means that the beer is continuing to ferment in the bottle. Some beers are pasteurized so that fermentation stops, then it’s bottled — it will taste much the same long after the sun goes supernova as it does today. With The Keel, there’s a little more yeast in each bottle, so it continues to work its yeasty magic.

The cool thing about this? We don’t really know what’s going to happen. We have some educated guesses. We can make some assumptions based upon past successes and failures. We can draw on our knowledge and previous experience with aging sour, wild, and bottle-conditioned beers. All beers change over time in the bottle, but where “clean” beers devolve over time, sours just improve with age. Hops fade, freshness fades, but acid and funk stay forever.

But, unlike a typical release that’s going to taste more or less the same when you drink it in two years because that’s what we want to happen, we want this one to change. We want to see it evolve. We want our customers to be able to come back in a year and say, “You know, The Keel was so different from when I drank it a year ago. I can’t wait to try my other bottle a year from now!”

Jimmy's cellar
Jimmy’s cellar

The main changes will be in the areas of body and mouthfeel. “I had a case of beers that were re-fermented in the bottle with Champagne yeast,” Jimmy says, “and I let them cellar for almost seven years. The beer was like drinking silk.”

This is why we want you to buy three bottles. Drink one today. Drink one in a year. Drink one in two years. Tell us how they changed. Like Hank said in a previous blog, “You become part of this.”

We like you guys. We want you to be a part of what we do. “This is what craft beer and homebrewing are all about,” Jimmy says, “having greater determination over what one drinks.”

We’re going to be aging some ourselves, so long as Hank doesn’t get a little overzealous and drink them all on Saturday. But we want to know what you think.

So, what are those guesses? How do these brewing geniuses expect the beer to change?

“I would predict more souring as the bacteria continue to slowly metabolize some of the compounds,” Jimmy tells us, “but there’s also some Brettanomyces in there so the funky flavors will come more and more to the forefront.”

Brian thinks that “The Keel is going to age very gracefully. The acidity might become more hidden in the blend as the Brett shows off more, and the more rustic and earthy notes will definitely be pushed to the forefront on the profile.”

Like a good Phish jam, The Keel will just get funkier and funkier. This is truly a strange design.

But you need to be careful. After two years or so, the acetic acid will begin to give the beer a vinegar-like flavor. The conditioning yeast in the bottle will eventually die and autolyse — basically, those terrified little yeasties will start to eat themselves because there’s nothing left in the beer for them to live on. Like roadkill, not exactly the kind of flavors you want in your brew. But, since the Brett in the brew are practically immortal, they’ll have less restraint than before and eat those autolysed yeasts.

So, hit the lights and close the door. Keep The Keel in a cool, dark place, upright, at a temperature between 55° and 65° Fahrenheit, and you should be golden.

After all these years, after all of this anticipation, we can’t wait for you to be part of this. It’s been three years in the making, and our levels of excitement are truly through the roof.

We’re thrilled to bring a few companions on this ride.

Saturday, June 25. 11 am. The Brewtique. Don’t miss it.