Last week, we received 60 French oak barrels from a Colorado company that repurposes high-quality casks from all over the world for use as meat smokers, water fountains, even pet bathtubs. And while we’re not against dogs getting a rustic-chic day at the spa, CMBC’s barrels will be put to a far more exciting use, at least in our opinion. In these bad boys, we’ll be aging our sours, starting immediately.
While it may seem like the Hot New Thing, barrel aging is not exactly novel. From the early centuries AD, beer was brewed, stored and served in wood. With the advent of super-sanitary aluminum and stainless steel kegs, the practice fell largely out of fashion. But now, well… hello, renaissance. (It helps that modern brewers have a better handle on natural barrel-cleaning methods than ancient homies did.)
So what’s the big deal?
You might have heard that beer can pick up the aromas and flavors of the wood it’s in, and that oak lends hints of coconut, vanilla and caramel. While that’s true, it’s not going to happen in our case. You see, our barrels had a first life aging red wine before they were given up by their winemaking guardians. And usually, when a barrel is turned over by a vineyard, it’s because all of the aforementioned flavors have been leeched from the wood already.
We’re cool with that – we’ve got a different agenda in mind, and it’s two-fold.
One, our beer will be able to acquire residual red wine flavor, which will add to its complexity. And two, storing our sours this way will allow them to mature — in some cases up to two years — so that the resulting, beautifully acidic flavor is juuuust right.
A little bit of oxygen will permeate through the cracks, explains Head Brewer Brian Hink, so that necessary bacteria is kept happy. Meanwhile, our team will check on each barrel every 30 days or so, to make sure taste is on point and evaporation is kept in check.
Right now, the vessels are being rehydrated, or filled with water so that the wood of each swells, becoming liquid tight before it’s filled with beer. The process is tricky, especially considering each 59-gallon barrel weighs 100 pounds empty, and a full 500 pounds when full. Stack four on top of one another, as we’ll be doing, and you’ve got the weight of a full-grown elephant. It’s not like we can trot a few over to the nearest hose without the help of a forklift or power jack.
But it’s work that’ll be well worth it in the end. CMBC was already the only brewery in the state doing sours; now we’re the only one doing barrel-aged sours, and we’re pretty geeked up about it.
“I was thinking about it from an artist’s perspective,” says Brian. “We’re not just relying on what we create ourselves, but what the barrel maker and wine maker have created. It’s a cool collaborative effort and I’m excited to see where this takes our sour program.”
As always, we’ll keep you posted.