Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Barrel Project: The Philosophical Implications of a Barrel...

The Heidelburg Tun in Germany. A very dilute
surface to liquor area... 
"Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense."                                   - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

I think that it is fair to say that within the past few years the oak barrel (in its various iterations and usages) has joined the hop as one of the hottest trend in the craft beer world. And for me it is almost more exciting than the hop. Here's why...

The Hop:
In the late 90s and first decade or so of the 2000s (grant me a bit of levity on these dates...history is fluid) there was a great boom in both the varieties of hops available to both home and commercial brewers. The outcome was the aromatic and intense American Pale Ales and IPAs that we love today. After the Cascade boom in the 80s and 90s (initially due to Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Pale Ale and then Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which popularized and arguably redefined the way that we think about the place of the hop as a component in beers), the now iconic combination of Simcoe (released in 2000) and Amarillo (discovered growing "wild" in a commercial hop field in the late 90s, and then cultivated) has come to be almost a signature of these beers. This is not to say that hops are and were not a prominent component in traditional beer styles, but that from a stylistic standpoint such beers tend to have a narrower definition of what proper or ideal hop character is -- a noble hop presence in pilsners, for instance, or a mellowed fruity bitterness in English IPAs. Over the past 20 years especially American craft brewers and hop cultivars have really been pushing at the edge of consumer's tolerance to this ingredient, inventing not only new strains and innovative techniques (constant hopping, mash / first wort hopping, whirlpooling) for use, but new technologies as well--the Randall, the torpedo, increased whirlpool hopping--and with amazing results, to boot.

So after this rant, please understand -- I'm a lupilin junkie just as much as the next West-Coaster (I'm sipping one of my seasonal favorites, Celebration, right now).

The Barrel:
But to me, the relationship between barrels and a beer is something different; something far more romantic and alchemic. To begin, think of the inceptive utilitarian relationship between barrels and beer. Barrels were first and foremost a vessel for transport, a means for containment necessary for distribution of this social beverage to the masses. Much heavier and unwieldy than our contemporary stainless steel kegs, even an average sized barrel (today this is ~200 liters or 53 US gallons; I am unsure of the historical volumetric ranges of barrels but I would guess they were larger), when filled with a "light" liquid such as water, weighs in at over 500 pounds (225 kilos). Yet even these smaller behemoths were durable and able to be rolled, and were the most efficient way to bring many goods--both liquid and dried--to trade-markets, across oceans, or over continents.

What're you staving at? Coopers coopering.
All this to say that with the exception of producers of intentionally aged beers (lambic, gueze, and other sours, for instance), brewers predominantly desired the barrel to be a passive component in the beer making process, and took measures to make these vessels as inert as possible, covering them with wax, or tarring the inside. Barrels were not intended to impart flavor to beers. As packaging technologies advanced, and an understanding of beer spoilage began to emerge a the beginning of the 20th century, however, barrels were quickly abandoned for vessels that would both block oxygen permeation and prevent leeching of tannins into the beverage. Similar to the hop, this relationship has drastically evolved, and now it is not just the lambic-teers that are heading this evolution.

As most drinkers know, barrels have shed their reputation as mere vessels to transport liquids. Barrels now offer something far more versatile than ever envisioned in the past, and can introduce widely varying approaches to beer. The vessel has now moved to transporting and transmitting certain flavors into the beer; in a remarkable inversion of historical purposing, what is contained in that barrel is not so much the liquid per-se, but the potentials of the barrel itself. Barrel-aging a beer in an used spirit barrel can impart some amazing flavors--tannic greens, richer vanillas, dark fruits, rums, earthiness, etc. But in addition to wood and spiritual by-products (couldn't resist that...), barrels are more and more used to house life! A barrel happens to be a perfect vessel to cultivate and maintain cultures of brewing microorganisms that make deliciously intricate and delicate beers. Similar to Kombucha SCOBYs, barrels can hold symbiotic cultures of yeasts and bacterias: brettanomyces, sacchromyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus. (Sure, its bacterial and fungal life, but it is still LIFE!) This is a traditional practice in making lambics and sours, but, as similar to innovations in hop technologies and usages, are being put into practice in new and interesting ways. (Check out, for instance Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project in Denver. Delicious.)

Even beyond these utilitarian purposes, there is a certain level of mystique and romance in a barrel as an artifact. Similar to secrecy amongst other craftsmen, there was a level of lore cautiously guarded by barrel coopers. As containers, barrels sustained life at sea, holding hard-tack, rum, and, of course, beer; they appear across literature, packing the holds of the Pequod, and populating the pages of Mark Twain; and they have even protected man in some of his most idiotic moments. They're big, wooden and beautiful.

This long-winded is basically to announce that a number of us at the Albany Brew Crafters have acquired a bourbon barrel of our own. Its a 53 gallon once-used bourbon barrel from Hillrock Estate Distillery in the Hudson Valley. Stay tuned for more on this fun and exciting project, including our Russian Imperial Stout recipe, and the challenges of using a barrel at home.
The barrel aging program at Goose Island Brewery in Chicago.
This is part of a wonderful photo set taken by Michael Kiser, on Flickr.

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