Why age beer in barrels?
It all started in 1999 when our brewer & owner, Vinnie Cilurzo, decided he wanted to make beer using Brettanomyces, his favorite component of Belgian Lambic beer. But more specifically, he wanted to meld the unique flavors of Brettanomyces with used wine barrels from local wineries. The first barrel aged beer, Temptation, is a blonde ale aged in used Chardonnay barrels with Brettanomyces. Then came Supplication, a brown ale aged in used Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, Brettanomyces, and also Pediococcus and Lactobacillus.Consecration and Beatification round out the barrel beer line-up.
Brettanomyces (also known as Brett) is feared by most brewers and winemakers alike. In fact, there are some local winemakers who will not set foot in our brewpub in Downtown Santa Rosa due to our use of Brettanomyces. Brettanomyces is actually yeast, it ferments and acts the same as every other "conventional" yeast, it just has the propensity to continue fermenting through almost any type of sugar, including those natural sugars found in the wood in an oak barrel. Brett is very invasive and if not handled properly can become out of control in a winery or brewery, but, if used properly with care, it can add rich aromas and flavors of earthiness, leather, smoke, barnyard, & our favorite descriptor-wet dog in a phone booth.
Both Lactobacillus (Lacto) and Pediococcus (Pedio) are bacteria; they are not yeast like Brettanomyces or Saccharomyces. When used properly these bacteria will add a pleasant sourness to the beer. However, a little goes a long way, and if over used a beer can become overly sour with too much tartness.
Pedio is anaerobic (meaning it lives without oxygen), and therefore a major potential spoiling bacteria in any beer. One of the major flavor developments of Pedio is the production of diacetyl (butter flavor & butterscotch). This is a flavor that we are not fond of and do not want in any our beers! Whether we like it or not, the diacetyl develops in every beer that goes through our barrel aging process. However, this flavor goes away and by the time the beer leaves the barrel it turns into a nice pleasant acidity. Pedio and Lacto, like all bacteria, are inhibited by the presence of alcohol. Because of this, some of our higher alcohol barrel beers do not have enough development of acidity by the bacteria. In these beers, we often blend a lower alcohol acidic barrel beer into the stronger, higher alcohol barrel beer to bring up the acidity.
Just like many local wineries that rotate a percentage of fresh wine barrels into their barrel program, we do the same thing at RRBC. For any given beer where we use a specific type of wine barrel for a specific type of beer (Temptation = Chardonnay barrels, Supplication = Pinot Noir barrels, Consecration = Cabernet Sauvignon barrels) we rotate in approximately 20% new barrels (that is new to us) that we pick-up from local wineries every spring. Another 20% of the lot of barrels are usually on their last leg which have just a small amount of oak & wine flavor left in them, and the remaining 60% have been in use for a couple of years at RRBC and will still have two or three years of use left. For the most part, we keep barrels in use for about five years before we rotate them into yet another barrel aged beer, Beatification.
There is no real formula when aging beer in barrels, the beer tells us when it is ready, not the other way around. At 9 months we start tasting each barrel and when the beer tells us it is ready, we will pull the beer out of the barrels into the final blend. Now, with that said, we tend to age our beer for 12 to 24 months before it is removed from the barrel.
Usually, blending is a dirty word in the beer industry. Big breweries making "industrial lager" blend batches all the time to ensure that every batch taste the same. We often blend these barrel beers to develop unique flavors, not for consistency. Sometimes there are exceptional barrels, while other times, there are barrels that just do not make the cut. These lesser barrels won't even make the final blend and often will get dumped. Blending is an important component of our barrel beers. The art of blending cannot be taught or learned over night. It is a long learning curve that we continue to improve upon every time we make a barrel aged beer.
On the side of each label for our barrel aged beers is a logo showing a number of hour glasses. Each hour glass represents one year potential aging if the beer is aged in a cool, dark place. So far, we've seen our barrel aged beer come into their own after a year or two in the bottle. On average we feel our barrel aged beers will age up to 5 years.