Story by Robyn Crummer-Olson
Photograph by Elliot Olson
Every person, and every wooden barrel, has a story. A stable structure composed of wood and metal, a barrel is never static. Its wood, its maker, its environment, and its past lives all determine the unique character of the barrel. And every subsequent use reaps the benefits of this rich and varied history. Just as two people are forever changed as a result of every interpersonal interaction, a barrel and its contents—be it wine, spirits, or beer—are forever altered as well.
The shape, materials, process, and function of wooden barrels have remained relatively unchanged since Roman times. The Roman scholar Pliny claimed that cooperage, the craft of barrel making, originated among inhabitants of Alpine valleys where wood was abundant. Slack barrels were primarily used for the storage of dry goods, tight barrels for liquid storage. As shipping expanded from the Middle Ages throughout the next several centuries, barrels were useful for the storage and delivery of beer because of their ability to withstand the pressure of carbonation. (Think: East India Trading Company and the birth of India Pale Ale.)
Modern-day cooperage methods are a mixture of handcrafted and mechanized methods, yielding vessels of many sizes ranging from 10 gallons to 120 hectoliters and up. (Modern coopers often must transition between metric and U.S. measurement systems.) The term barrel does not connote a standard unit of measurement as barrels can be made to many sizes, according to European and U.S. dimensions. For the sake of this article, I’ll use the term barrel to refer to the Burgundy-style, 228-liter (60 U.S. gallon) wine barrel, unless otherwise noted.
Barrel making begins with the selection and seasoning of high-quality wood and cutting and planing the staves. The staves are jointed at the edges so that the barrel will have room to expand and contract. Raising the barrel involves placing the staves upright in a circle inside temporary hoops. The barrel staves are heated and bent to make the uniform bulge. The stave ends are trimmed and the flat heads are placed on the ends. Permanent hoops are put into place, and finally the barrel is tested for leaks.
Lips like sugar kisses: barrel flavors
In wine making and spirits distilling, an individual barrel expresses particular flavor profiles (a combination of aromas and tastes) depending on the type of wood used, where it was grown, and how it was seasoned; the toast or char applied to the interior of the barrel; and where the barrel is in its life cycle.
Barrel aroma compounds can include vanilla, coconut, fresh oak, smoke, clove, caramel, butterscotch, and tobacco, among others. There are also many barrel aromas that are deemed undesirable, or too forward, including pine, dill, and resin. Highly detailed molecular analyses can be performed on the oak barrel wood to indicate both the kinds and amounts of specific flavor and aroma compounds present.
From the early 1800s on, wood flavors were considered undesirable in beer and many brewers used various methods involving water and hydrochloric acid to remove any aromas and flavors.
For tight barrels, white oak is generally preferred over other types of wood by the cooperage industry, wineries, and distilleries because of its strength, workability, and desirable aroma compounds. White oak contains tyloses, plastic-like structures that plug the pores of the wood making it water tight. Its tight grain affects how gradually the wine, beer, or spirits extract flavors from the wood and the rate of oxidation as well as minimizes loss through evaporation.
French Oak (Quercus robur or Q. petraea)
French white oak is harvested from several different forests. Coopers, and their clients, favor wood barrels crafted from particular forests because of the oaks’ unique tannin and flavor profiles. Oregon Barrel Works in McMinnville, Oregon, sources wood from six forests in France: Nevers, Center of France, Bertranges, Vosges, Chatillon, and Fontainebleau. Other forests known for French white oak are Limousin, Alliers, and Troncais.
American Oak (Q. alba)
Harvested primarily in the eastern and southeastern United States, American white oak is known for having a much more aggressive flavor profile, including having more tannin and being more “oaky” than French oak. Rick DeFerrari of Oregon Barrel Works said simply, “There’s a lot of barrel there.” Many distilleries prefer American oak precisely for its flavor-forward compounds. By the time a brewery acquires an American oak barrel for a barrel-aged beer program, much of the oak’s natural compounds would have been extracted long ago, and the characteristics of the previous inhabitants would be a much more significant influence on the beer’s final flavor than the original wood.
Oregon Oak (Q. garryana)
Oregon Barrel Works crafts both Oregon oak and French oak barrels. DeFerrari’s customers have found that Oregon oak resembles the character of French white oak. DeFerrari attributes the cold climate and ample rains of western Oregon with helping to soften the strong tannin and accentuate the natural sweetness of the Oregon oak, especially when contrasted with its more forward American oak cousin.
Milling and Seasoning
Barrel staves begin their lives when a 100-year-old oak tree is hand-split with (as opposed to against) the grain immediately after harvesting. Staves taken from different positions on the trunk can affect the barrel’s aroma profile as well. Once the wood has been milled into uniform planks, it’s stacked to allow air to circulate. New, milled wood exposes its tannin, an antimicrobial compound present in wood that protects the barrel from decay, pests, and mildew. The tannin in fresh wood is too strong and will overpower any other aromas of the wood, and liquids it comes into contact with, so it must be seasoned to mellow its influence. Depending on the cooperage, the seasoning process includes two to three years of air-drying to achieve this. Air-dried and kiln-dried wood can affect the oak’s aromas as well. Air-drying tends to be the preferred method because of the wood’s slow, continuous exposure to humidity and rain. Soaking the wood in water also affects tannin and the wood’s flavor characteristics. DeFerrari prefers to age the wood for three years after which he applies two hot-water soaks and one cold-water soak to mellow its tannin.
Light, medium, medium+, and heavy toast are labels for the results of a cooper applying flame to the interior of the barrel. Toast levels are subjective and can yield variations between barrels. Barrels used for distilling spirits are often charred with a propane flame until “snakeskin” appears. It’s normal for some of this char debris to come off during the aging process. Charred barrels cause spirits to mature faster than those aged in toasted barrels.
Once a barrel has been used for approximately five years, it’s considered “neutral,” and the wood no longer influences the liquids with its own characteristic aroma and flavor compounds.
Depending on where a barrel is in its lifecycle also impacts how much and what kind of flavors it imparts to the liquid it contains. For example, a barrel that held red wine will impart a berry or fruity character, while a former bourbon barrel, with its charred interior, can give the beer a distinctive smoky and astringent flavor.
Lauren Salazar, sensory specialist and blender at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, prefers neutral French oak barrels. She states, “French oak has the perfect porosity for oxidation.” She also goes on to explain that a newer barrel will still have many of the antimicrobial agents intact, making the vessel inhospitable to the wild bacteria and yeasts that she uses to inoculate her barrels. She needs a neutral, broken-in barrel to make it possible for her to create the various beers that she blends together to form New Belgium’s award-winning barrel-aged beers.
Looking for love: Beer seeks barrel for long-term, committed relationship
A quick tour through the Little Woody Barrel Aged Brew Fest beer list yielded a startling array (and dramatic variety in descriptive details) of barrel-aged beers and the vessels who love them. The most generic descriptions waning toward “winter warmer in brandy barrels” or “aged in whiskey barrels” and the most detailed waxing toward “summer ale in Domaine Drouhin French Oak Pinot Noir barrels,” strong ale in “a freshly emptied Oregon Spirit Distillers bourbon barrel,” or “rare rediscovered white oak Bourbon barrels managed by Buffalo Trace Distillery, dating 1989, 1991, & 1993.” Now that’s specific.
When Salazar describes her perfect barrel, it sounds like a barrel-aged beer fanatic’s dream personals ad: “60-hectoliter used red-wine barrel. A foudre. It would be totally neutral. It would have just made wine and still be all juicy and grapey. It would have a personality. It would be a blank canvas.” Salazar has found that all-wood foudres are hard to come by as many have been augmented with stainless steel. When she gets word of a winery ready to retire a foudre, she flies there to inspect it. She describes the experience of discovering her next blank canvas: “Old, beautiful, and ready for its next life. It’s like they know they’re on the chopping block. They’re so beautiful and well made.”
Part of the reason Salazar wants the freshest barrel she can find is because she wants all the character and potential of the barrel’s previous lives to come through. (There’s also a pesky process of rehydrating a dried-out barrel, involving keeping just enough water running into it to keep it full for 24 to 48 hours.) While a freshly emptied wine or spirits barrel is ideal, many small breweries make do with rehydrating a retired barrel from a mass-production distillery.
Brad Irwin at Oregon Spirits Distillery in Bend, Oregon says there’s high demand for their barrels—so much so that he has to turn several breweries away each week. Sourcing barrels from distilleries with much higher barrel turnover makes sense from an availability standpoint but may not necessarily yield the most desirable outcome for the brewer. Irwin disparages the use of these barrels with a warning about their prior living conditions: “[They’re] probably buying a used barrel that sat outside for three months then drove around in a truck before they got it.” Oregon Spirits Distillery has an arrangement with Silver Moon Brewing to provide them with several fresh (sometimes still wet) barrels a year for the brewery’s long-term, barrel-aging program.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company, of Paso Robles, California, has embraced the next phase of their barrel-aged beer program with the recent construction of a new cellar and visitor experience dedicated solely to their “live-barrel” wild beer program. Formerly squatting in spare space at the warehouse, Firestone Walker’s 1,500 wooden barrels now have a permanent, 7000-square-foot “cathedral of barrels” called Barrelworks. Their barrel-aging program, eight years in the making, features a revolving line of Belgian-inspired sour beers such as Lil’ Opal, Sour Opal, Rufus, and Reginald Brett. Firestone Walker relies on a long-curated collection of American-, French-, and Hungarian-oak barrels, acquired from wineries such as Opus One, Halter Ranch, and Chamisal. Firestone Walker knows that a good barrel is hard to find.
Celebrating their silver anniversary
So what’s life like with a barrel? Do they give more than they take? Salazar thinks so.
As with any long-term, committed relationship, an attentive person gets to know her partner’s quirks and preferences. Salazar often refers to her barrels as though they are alive. She explains, “I know when they’re happy or sad. Cold or hot. Or hungry. I feel like the more I pay attention to them, the more they thrive, the better they do. Just like anything, if you don’t pay enough attention to it, it will whither and die.”
It takes Salazar a while to get to know each barrel’s personality, and she names each barrel according to its unique characteristics. Of the barrel named “Cherry Golightly,” Salazar says, “You feed her beer and she turns it into the flavor of cherry skins. I don’t know how she does it.” And of another favorite barrel, named “Bloem,” she says, “You give him beer and it makes this crazy, funky clove flavor. This one barrel just loves brettanomyces [yeast]. Every other barrel gets the same amount [of yeast] but this barrel just loves it.”
Long considered the best method of storage, aging, and transport, wooden barrels were the ubiquitous vessel of wine, spirits, and beer making. For hundreds of years, barrels were the most efficient and cost-effective vessel of choice. With the implementation of stainless and other non-porous materials, the reliance on wooden barrels began shifting considerably in the 20th century. Stainless steel vessels certainly have their place in the containment and production of fermented liquids with large-scale breweries’ emphasis on sanitation and consistency. But when brewers want to spice things up, many turn toward experimentation through barrel-aging programs. By bringing the barrel back, they invite the wisdom and chemistry of that barrel’s past lives and past loves as well. As in any good relationship, both partners learn to accept each other, scars and all.
Sidebar 1 /
As the Barrel Turns
The biography of a barrel’s journey from birth to death is a long and fascinating story. Pour yourself a barrel-aged beauty and read about the last several hundred years that it spent en route to your glass.
White oak acorn germinates.
Oak tree grows to maturity and becomes ready for harvesting.
Milled oak staves air dry.
1 week–2 months, depending on the size of the barrel
A master cooper planes, bevels, joins, raises, bends, toasts, adds the head, pressure tests, and sands the barrel.
1–2 more years for wine, 5–10 more years for spirits
Rinse and repeat two to five
Depending on the size and how many times it can be repaired, the barrel finds its forever home as a neutral barrel in a brewery’s barrel-aging program.
That means the oak that may have caressed the barrel-aged beer in your glass brought over 200 years of experience, trauma, joy, and regrets to the relationship. Can you taste it?
Sidebar 2 /
Well worth the wait / must-try Barrel-aged Brews
Barrel-Aged Old Rasputin XV / 11.9% ABV
North Coast Brewing, Fort Bragg, CA
This famed version of North Coast Russian Imperial Stout is barrel aged for nine months in 12-year-old bourbon barrels. Released in limited amounts each December.
Bitter Monk / 9% ABV
Anchorage Brewing Company, Anchorage, AK
This triple fermented, Belgian-style double IPA is brewed with Belgian yeast and Apollo, Citra, and Simcoe hops before being dry hopped (with more Citra) in French oak chardonnay barrels with brettanomyces yeast.
Bourbon Barrel Abominable / 9% ABV
Fremont Brewing Company, Seattle, WA
Lovingly referred to as the B-BOMB, this strong ale is the bourbon barrel-aged version of Fremont’s winter ale and is released annually to keep Fremonters warm.
Fred From The Wood / 10% ABV
Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, Portland, OR
At least six months of aging in new, medium-toast American oak barrels imparts a strong, fresh wood character to the golden special ale created in honor of Portland, Oregon beer writer and historian Fred Eckhardt.
La Folie Wood-Aged Biere / 6% ABV
New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
New Belgium’s “original wood-conditioned beer” is aged in French oak barrels anywhere between one and three years before bottling. Emulates the spontaneously fermented beers of Flanders.
Loakal Red / 6.9% ABV
The Bruery, Placentia, CA
A blend of old and new: an older batch of this American red ale is matured in American oak barrels and then blended with a fresh, dry-hopped batch of red ale, creating a hoppy red ale with a twist.
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