Wood & Beer – A Match and a Festival Made in Heaven

Wood & Beer – A Match and a Festival Made in Heaven

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

It might seem that barrel aging beer is a recent trend, and certainly more breweries are doing it now than used to. As a brewery, you’d have to explain yourself if you don’t have some kind of wood aged program. But in truth, wood aged beers have around for more than a thousand years.  Most beer was once aged in wood – because that’s what brewers had – but even the recent growth in barrel-aged beer is older than you think. This weekend Walter and I attended the Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB) in Chicago, and it might surprise you to learn that this festival and competition is seventeen years old!

Before we make you jealous with descriptions of the festival, the breweries, and the beers, let’s take a few lines to talk about why wood aging of beer is such a special thing, how and why its magic has become so popular. The science of wood and beer has spawned more than one book (I heartily recommend Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide by Dick Cantwell and Peter Bouckaert), but barrel aging is as much an art and a crapshoot as it is a science.

A brewery may have a single barrel that they put some beer in for a special occasion or release, or they may have multiple barrel programs in different locations with more barrels than you can count. New Belgium passed the 50,000 barrel mark a few years ago. A barrel program, no matter the size, can include different types of barrels, different types of fermentation, and may be blended or not. So many breweries have now started barrel programs that it may seem that this is a new-ish trend, but in fact, barrel aging is as old as beer, and is a worthy subject for a national competition and festival. Here’s some information about barreling beer, and then a description of our time at FOBAB.

A Roman barrel. image credit: BBC

History of wood aging. Storing alcoholic beverages in wood is at least 2100 years old, with the oldest fully enclosed barrels dating back to at least 800 BCE. It is thought that the Gauls may have invented the practice, with the Greeks preferring clay, but we have evidence that the Romans used wood barrels at least 2000 years ago. Some used pitch coated barrels to prevent contact with the wood or using different woods for different flavors, just like we do today, but oak has always been prized.

The name Cooper (barrel maker) is very old, and harkens to the days when people were named for what they did – like Olaf the Cooper. The industrial revolution brought a switch to mostly steel/metal barrels and storage containers, but many brewers, especially in Belgium, have always used wood for fermentation and/or aging.

Why use wood? As stated above, the first use of wood was out of necessity; it made for good, watertight containers when properly assembled. Oak took the lead as a wood used because European forests (and later American forests as well) were full of oak – a solid, hard, wood. It’s just lucky for everyone that oak also happens to impart some of the nicest and most complex flavors. Indeed, nowadays the flavors, aromas, and colors are one of the main reasons for using wood. The tannins, terpenes, phenolics, aldehydes, etc. of oak are pronounced, and can be modified by toasting or charring. If the wood being used housed a spirit before hand, it can add flavors from the spirit and some alcohol (if sloshy).

Different woods add different, more mild flavors; a brewer is looking for a way to show off the beer, not cover it up.  However, aging in wood is a gamble, this is something that brewers have less control over, and they are used to having supreme control of what goes into and what comes out of a beer. Dark beers used to be better for wood aging, but nowadays with many different woods and different styles, light beers as well as dark beers will be gambled on with wood.

Italian puncheons at Harry Stuff Brewing in Wawaka, IN. image credit: kpc news

The other main use of wood is for fermentation, because wood is porous and can support a microbiome of organisms all its own. This is also a gamble because a brewer is again in less control of the fermentation process, so the product is somewhat up in the air. But whether it is for fermentation or aging, brewers use wood not so much to make money (more beer is lost with these techniques), but for reasons of passion and innovation.

The wood for aging. Whether it be for fermentation or for aging, the wood matters (cedar, French Oak, American Oak, maple, cherry, etc.). Since they are all distinct genetically and chemically, they all impart different things to the beer. French oaks (either Slovenian or sessile) have traditionally been used for wines, and are now used for beers when a brewer is looking for milder flavors. American Oak (white oak) has bolder flavors and aromas, and are often used for aging beers that have stronger flavors.

French oak has larger pores, so it must be hand split to keep the capillaries intact, while American oak, with smaller pores, can be sawn. This makes French oak more expensive to use, but also contributes to the degree to which compounds leach into the beer.

Splitting versus sawing is one difference between French and American oak for barrels, but the drying method and time are different as well. French oak for wine barrels is air dried in the elements for two years to leach much of the tannins and other astringent compounds, while American oak is dried in a kiln over a short period, retaining many of the compounds. The cooper can ameliorate or heighten these differences through the way the barrels are constructive (size, thickness, etc.) and finished (toasted for some, while charred for others).

Nail pulls are the way to test the beer in a barrel. Nail pull days seem to draw more unexpected visitors. image credit: The Rare Barrel

From that point the barrels are sent to first use producers, and they may be used only once, or sold and used for other products over and over. Only the producer can say when a barrel is less likely to give them what they are looking for, from flavors to aromas to microorganism profiles for fermenting.

How to use wood for beer. Wood for beer doesn’t have to come in the form of barrels, it can be blocks, staves, spirals, barrels, foeders, puncheons, casks, firkins, etc. Each will give a different surface area to volume ratio which will affect the time the beer will take to absorb flavors and other compounds, and the degree to which things like moisture, oxygen, and temperature will be transmitted to the beer.

How to use wood with beer can and has been the subject of many books, so let’s stick with generalities. Wood can be used to age beer (talked about above) or ferment beer. Because wood is porous, it will support microorganism, and these can be used to convert the wort sugars to alcohol and CO2. The numbers of organisms can be very different, and will develop over time as the barrel is used and reused.

Suffice it to say that fermenting beer in wood is very different from aging it on wood. Fermentation in a wood container generally takes longer, is less controllable, and is therefore a bigger gamble. Each barrel or foeder will be a bit different in fermentation, so blending beers may be desired or necessary.  In some cases, a brewery will use a steam gun on barrels to kill off the microbes, but many brewers would never think of getting rid of the acquired microbiota. As some brewers say, time leaches the chemicals from the wood, and it becomes just a house for different microbes – and brewers want the bugs….sometimes.

Founders Brewing uses more than 50,000 barrels a year. Maybe that’s why you can get KBS so cheap now. image credit: October

For fermentation, there can be clean versus sour programs, where yeasts are used to impart esters and some phenolics only in clean systems, while sour programs use yeasts and bacteria to add acids, different esters, and many other chemicals, like in lambics, oud bruins, or Flanders style beers. Only a brewer can decide when a barrel or other wood has turned from producing the beers they want to something different, and they may move them from a clean program to a sour program as the microbiota develops in the wood.

We’ve just touched the surface of how wood is used with beer. How long to leave beer on wood, where the barrels come from and the market for reselling barrels, blending barrels, repairing barrels, etc. These are important to the overall story and to understanding how much work goes into brewing you beers treated on wood, but they are not our purpose here. My main purpose was to awe you with the depth to which brewers go in order to bring you great beers, and to make you jealous about the great day Walter and I had on the 9th in Chicago at the Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beer (FOBAB).

FOBAB. More than 225 breweries from 27 states came together at the UIC Forum for three sessions of drinking (Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening), as well as the judging and awards ceremony for the National Barrel Aged Beer Competition. One hundred judges evaluated 412 beers/meads, ciders, and perrys across a dozen categories before more than 600 volunteers poured those same beers for the thirsty patrons.

This is the primary fundraiser for the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild (ICBG), and based on the attendance of this one of three sessions, I suspect that they are flush with cash. Neither Walter nor I are good at estimating crowds, but I’d say that there was north of a thousand people there for the single session we attended. We saw many more familiar faces than I figured we would, and made some new friends.

Misbeehavin’ Meads took top honors this weekend. image credit: FOBAB

Ten Indiana breweries took part in the competition and tastings – Taxman Brewing out of Bargersville, Upland Brewing from Bloomington, Sun King Brewing and Sun King Small Batch from Indy, Four Fathers Brewing and Misbeehavin’ Meads of Valparaiso, 18th Street Brewery from Hammond, 2Toms Brewing out of Fort Wayne, 3 Floyds Brewing from Munster, and Shoreline Brewery from Michigan City.

During the middle of the festival was the awards ceremony, and the announcer was, I kid you not, drinking a Champagne Velvet from Upland Brewing on the dais as he named the winners. This year Indiana took two medals, a bronze for Taxman’s Bourbon Barrel Qualified (a Belgian Quad), and a gold for their BA Carmel Apple Cider from Misbeehavin’ Meads.

The entire session for us was five hours long. We took our time, and unfortunately, poured out a lot of beer. The samples were large for a normal festival, but for a barrel aged beer festival they were humungous. I’d bet that the two phrases I used most on Saturday were, “Ooh that’s good,” and “please, just a splash is all I need.” The beers ranged from about 6% ABV to higher than 15%, so a taste to get the essence of the beer was more than enough.

Shawn Kessel and Steve Kent were on hand to accept the medal for Taxman. I missed the Misbeehavin’ Meads medal because I was investigating whether that was really a Champagne Velvet in the announcer’s hand. Most of the cheers went to the Chicago breweries that won medals, and they won four. I don’t know why Sun King didn’t bring Shadow Proof or one of its variants considering that it was recently named one of the best 19 beers of 2019 by Craft Beer & Brewing. Perhaps they were looking for feedback on other beers. Regardless, it seems that the Indiana breweries take turns winning medals, the state has taken at least one medal in each of the last twelve years.

It was quite a crowd Saturday afternoon. This is just part of the crowd, and there were three such sessions. image credit: Walter

The best in show award went to Bottle Logic for the second year in a row, this year for Arcane Rituals. The runner up was Peach Afternoon from The Lost Abbey, a beer so good I chose to try it again this Saturday after having had it at the Rhinegeist Rare Beer Fest the previous weekend. The best beers (in our opinions) are hard to name since there were so many good ones, but Walter loved the After Dinner Decadence by Hidden Springs Ale Works, the Double Barrel Iced Barleywine from Untitled Art, and the Brandy Barrel-Aged Gingerbread Dubbel from Oak Park Brewing. I was completely enamored of the Framzwart from Funk Factory Geuzeria, the Absinthe Barrel O-Gii from Milwaukee Brewing Co., Phase Three Brewing’s Barrel-Aged Curvature: Vanilla, and Begyle Brewing’s Barrel Aged Imperial Pajamas – Baklava.

Overall, the festival was fantastic, but there were a few things that I would think about tweaking. It was a different kind of festival than most with all volunteer pourers, so no real communication about the beer was possible at the time of pouring, but I don’t think the festival can do anything about that. Also, the descriptions were in the booklet but not on the board above the stations, just the names. I think there was enough room to use short descriptions on the name boards, but maybe they do it on purpose to slow people down by having to look the beers up. Finally, the lights were down low the entire time of the festival, not just during the awards program. It made it less harsh, but made photography difficult for non-professionals.

Mike Rybinski of ZwanzigZ has had a bond with the ICBG since his days at America’s Historic Roundhouse/Two Brothers’ Roundhouse. image credit: Walter

The two most amazing things were how different all the beers were from one another, and our opportunity to pinpoint various traits by comparing two different pistachio beers, or two different beers from tequila barrels, etc. The second amazing thing (to us, since we didn’t know) was that Mike Rybinski of ZwanzigZ Pizza and Brewery was in charge of the music, sound, and/or video for the event. He was busy so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him, but I’d like to know the back story; it was a big surprise to find him sitting up on the balcony by the brewers’ lounge. Hopefully we’ll get to go to FOBAB again next year and we won’t be nearly so surprised, it was a barrel of fun this year.


banner image credit: Stone Brewing

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