“A barrel full of certainties won’t roll very far.” – Gerd de Ley
From the beginning, I was certain that we would make barrel-aged beers at Heretic. We are close to Napa so it is easy to obtain used wine barrels and I really like the interesting character that develops from aging beer in a barrel.
I have had many people ask me why barrel-aged beer sells for significantly higher price than non-barrel aged beer. The higher price is due to the time and resources that go in and the lower amount of beer that comes out. For our barrel-aged beers, we start with the same amount of beer as a regular batch, but we never recover as much beer as we started with.
We start with 30 bbl (930 US gallons) of beer and we fill 12 wine barrels. The wine barrels hold a little under 60 gallons each, so when full they hold about 720 of our initial 930 gallons of beer. The remainder goes into stainless steel kegs. We reserve some beer for blending back later and for topping up the barrels during aging. As they sit, the barrels evaporate beer and you need to top them up every week. Topping up helps prevent too much oxygen pickup, which can have a negative effect on the beer. A tiny bit of oxygen can be good, but too much can easily be ruinous. Depending on how long the beer is in the barrels and the humidity of the barrel room, you can go through a fair amount of beer just topping barrels.
We taste the beer over the course of months, the length of time depending on what we are trying to achieve. What is fascinating is how different each barrel can be. You might think that two barrels sitting side-by-side filled with the same beer would develop to be the same. However, the beer is often quite different in each barrel. When we sample our barrels, we take tasting notes because no two barrels are the same. Sometimes the differences are subtle and other times the differences are huge, but all the barrels are different.
Once we feel the beer is ready, we blend the best barrels back into a single beer. Keep in mind every barrel is different so blending is important to make a great, properly balanced beer. If it needs it, we also add some of the beer we held in reserve. Many people assume that we just blend all the barrels back. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In order to get the best beer, you can only use the best of the barrels. While you might be tempted to blend in a barrel that tastes just “OK” that is a slippery slope. It is fine if maybe it is a barrel lacking in oak character and you are going to balance it with another barrel that has a bit too much oak character. However, it is another thing entirely if there is some off-flavor, no matter how slight. Why would you ever add beer that had any sort of flaw?
So you end up losing some beer to evaporation, some to transfers, some to analysis, and some ends up going down the drain. When we dump a 60 gallon barrel, the cost of producing our barrel-aged beer increases about 7%. Add to that the price of barrels and all of the special handling and time involved with barreled beers and you can see why the price of barrel-aged beers commands a premium.
Our distributors and retailers ask excitedly about our special barrel beers. They want to know how much the beer will cost and how much beer we will have available. The answer is always that I don’t know yet. I have to see how much great beer the barrels hold, and only then can I calculate how much it cost us to produce the beer. Barrel-aged beers are always full of uncertainties.