There’s something to be said for history. While some may think it’s bunk, the rest of us know that we need to learn it or be doomed to repeat it.
When it comes to barrel-aging beer, it’s not so much being doomed to repeat it, it’s more like hoping we get something close to repeating it.
You see, when you barrel age a beer, it changes the beer, certainly, but it also changes the barrels. There’s an exchange: the barrel’s character seeps into the beer, and the beer gives a little bit of itself back.
It’s a dance. It’s symbiotic.
So, while the newest in our Barrel Aged Series, Fleetingly Anchored, was racked in the same barrels that held the first critically-acclaimed release in that series, The Keel, as well as Beer Connoisseur’s Best Beer of 2017, The Topsail, things are different now. Things have changed. Those beers have irrevocably changed those barrels.
Yet, those beaten up, used, oaken red wine barrels hold the history of what came before. They carry a bit of The Keel and The Topsail with them.
We know that we can’t repeat the past.
However, we’re going to have to take the advice of Jay Gatsby on this one. “Can’t repeat the past?” he’d cry incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
Barrel aging beer is literally the only time anyone anywhere should take Jay Gatsby’s advice. We cannot stress this clearly enough. Otherwise, you may end up getting hit by a car or murdered in your pool or disillusioned with the American Dream and moving back to the Midwest with an acute disdain for New Yorkers.
However, when it comes to barrel aging beer, understanding what’s come before and making a meager — though ultimately futile — attempt to repeat it isn’t always a bad thing.
“I really appreciate the time that we took with Fleetingly Anchored and the fact that we will never be able to replicate it: that’s the nature of barrel-aged beers,” says Lab Manager Lauren Appleman. “After every use, the barrel evolves. We just have to do our best to steer it in the right direction.”
Though the barrels change and evolve, Innovation Director and Barrel Wrangler Brian Hink sees the lineage of what came before.
“This beer definitely shares some similarities with its barrel-mates — I just coined this term and I kinda like it a lot!” he says. “It leans closer to The Topsail for sure.”
The base beers for both The Topsail and Fleetingly Anchored were certainly similar. The Topsail was a soured Golden Blonde fermented with our French Saison yeast; Fleetingly Anchored is a Golden Sour fermented with our Trappist High Gravity.
“The main difference between the two is that Fleetingly Anchored has a slightly higher ABV and higher finished gravity than The Topsail,” Brian says. “It has more of an alcohol presence, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s damn near 12% ABV.”
We’ve been getting a bit of mileage out of our Trappist High Gravity lately. It helped us get December’s Imperial Stout, Last Hurrah, up to 15% ABV and has served us well in beers such as Tripel Wreck and Dubbel Marker.
The Trappist High Gravity is a beautiful, traditional, high-ABV Belgian strain: strong fruity esters and very few phenols coming through.
“The Trappist High Gravity left the beer with food for Brett and Friends to munch on,” Brian tells us.
Brett and Friends isn’t some morning news show; Brian’s referring to East Coast Yeast’s Bug County blend, which contains four strains of Brettanomyces, a wild Saccharomyces yeast, and various strains of Lactobacilli and Pediococcus.
With so many little buggers flying around Lab Manager Lauren Appleman gets a little nervous.
“I am a little concerned about cross-contamination,” she says. “But at the same time, I realize that, even with best practices for cleaning, sanitizing, and keeping everything separate, contamination could still happen. The good news is that it isn’t something that would be harmful to humans if ingested.”
We first cultured and used this strain on Turtle Gut, then inoculated the barrels which were used for The Keel and reused it on The Topsail. However, at this point, many generations later, it’s difficult to say exactly what’s going on with this blend of microflora.
“At this point, it’s morphed its way into a sort of house culture for us,” Brian explained.
This blend has worked through a majority of our barrels, and with each subsequent use, the blend changes and adapts to the conditions present in the base beer.
“For example,” Brian explains, “a beer with higher IBUs will inhibit the Lactobacillus growth and encourage the Pediococcus to create more acid production. Or, perhaps on this fill, some of the Brett strains took more of a lead horse position, which left fewer sugars behind for the acid producers to play with. So, the blend of microbes is constantly changing.”
Both The Topsail and Fleetingly Anchored were brewed with pilsner malts and Saaz hops, leaving us with two very similar beers. The difference in their yeast was a huge contributing factor to what’s different between them, but there are a lot of factors that can change with barrel-aged brews.
“The Topsail was a little brighter and cleaner,” Brian says, “whereas Fleetingly Anchored is a little more sour, which brings a sharpness that The Topsail didn’t have. With barrel-aged beers, there are so many other contributing factors: time in the barrel, time of year when going into the barrels (temperature and humidity greatly influence what goes on inside the barrel), the generational drift and diversity that happens with the microflora. All of these things factor into the final product, but it’s difficult to say what specifically contributed to the different profiles.”
We laid this base beer down in those barrels which, by this time, were on their third fill. Fourth, if you count the original red wine. The first brew in them, The Keel, had a remarkable amount of vinous character; The Topsail, not as much.
By the time Fleetingly Anchored reached those barrels, there wasn’t a whole lot of barrel character left, but there was still remnants of both The Keel and The Topsail.
“There are some oaken flavors in the background, but other than that there’s very little red wine character coming from the barrels,” Brian says. “This beer does have a strong wine-like note to it, but that’s not really from the barrels: that’s more from the base beer playing off the cultures in the barrels and the micro-oxygenation that comes through the barrel’s staves.”
At this point, they’re relatively neutral aging vessels with thousands of nooks and crannies for the microflora to have a field day. You see, in a typical fermentation vessel — like those big, steel things we have scattered about the brewery floor — there aren’t a lot of places for these little buggers to hide and do their secondary fermentation thing.
However, in a wooden barrel, they’ve got a bunch of places to get busy. And, since wood is porous — meaning that oxygen-rich air can get through the tiny, little holes all over the place — they’ll have just enough oxygen to keep them alive and kicking.
All of these aspects come together to create a fruity, sharp, and deceptively drinkable brew with intense flavors of over-ripened stone fruits.
“I love the flavors and aromas of this one,” Lauren says.
“It’s very well rounded, rich, sharp, super bright, tangy, and just a little bit of alcohol heat coming through,” Brian says, “bringing a subtle warming quality that helps you realize it’s an almost 12% beer.”
Fleetingly Anchored will be available in the Brewtique at 11am on Saturday. If its “barrel-mates” are any indication, this one won’t be around for long. Don’t miss out!