Barrel Aging, Part 4: Brewing Beers for Barrels

Over the past year, our Research and Small Batch Manager Steve Gonzalez has fielded questions from curious beer fans and homebrewers on the topic of barrel-aging and Stone’s wood program. In addition to one last batch of his responses, we’re also offering up a cool video spotlighting our Small Batch Brewing Team. They are passionate people with a wealth of experience that, as exemplified by this four-part blog series, is as refined as the beers their expert techniques produce. Get a glimpse of what makes these folks so awesome then take in one last burst of barrel-aging knowledge.

Stone fan Kyle Tucker asks: Stone tends to focus on higher ABV ales, IPAs, double IPAs, etc. Generally, barrel-aging is great for sour beers and stouts. What kind of results would be had from barrel-aging an IPA (which is generally better fresh), and would it be an option for your guys to have a barrel-aged Stone Ruination IPA, for example?

We aged Stone Ruination IPA in Bourbon barrels and released it as Batch 06 of our 2013 Quingenti Millilitre series. It was Batch 06 of the 2013 series. It was really good, but we probably won’t do it again. All that hoppiness was a little more muted than fresh Stone Ruination IPA, but still present in that beer. It was aged for a very long 16 months. We experimented with the idea of dry-hopping it or blending fresh Stone Ruination IPA into it, but in the end, we decided it was better without any help. We have done very small-scale experiments with Stone Cali-Belgique IPA and Stone IPA aged in Bourbon barrels also. I didn’t care for them, personally, and we won’t be moving forward with that again.

The two of our IPAs that are amazing in barrels are Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Black IPA aged in rye whiskey barrels and Stone Cali-Belgique IPA aged in red or white wine barrels. The SSRA had all that awesome orange and chocolate flavor combined with spice and vanilla from the spirt barrel. It was so good, we bottled it as Stygian Descent, Batch 01 of our 2014 Quingenti Millilitre series. I would like to try aging that beer in Bourbon barrels at some point and potentially try it in red wine barrels. It could work. Stone Cali-Belgique IPA in wine barrels is amazing. The Belgian yeast combined with native micro-flora from the barrel enhances the spiciness and fruitiness of that beer. The piney character of the hops in the beer melds with the fruit flavors and bitter tannin of the wine barrel to become something deliciously different.

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Stone fan Michael Piorunski asks: Have you made an “all-California” barrel-aged beer with California malt, hops, yeast, water and oak?

I haven’t considered doing that. We do use a lot of local ingredients and, certainly, California has a ton of wine barrel coopers, but malt might be tricky to get. We did make a beer called Stone Passion Project that was made with passion fruit from our own Stone Farms. That was a really cool and fun barrel-aged beer with local ingredients. The malt and hops were mostly Continental European, but the barrels were all from California wineries.

Stone fan Mike Upson asks: I have it on good authority that there is a Bourbon barrel filled with StoneWall Ale continuing to age at your facility. Is that true?

If there is, I haven’t seen it! We don’t age very many of our beers for that long. The current record is 26 months. Maybe at some point in the future, we’ll lay something down for an extended aging period as a sort of “liquid time capsule,” but for now, we’re not doing that. StoneWall Ale is now over its peak. It is still a pretty tasty beer, but if you have any left, I would recommend not saving it any longer.

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Stone fan Tim Oyer asks: Is it possible to buy used barrels from Stone to use for homebrews? I’d kill to have a barrel from Crime or Punishment for my own attempt at a spicy treat!

We do not typically sell them. Once we are done with our barrels, we convert most of them into really cool chairs and benches for our Stone Company Stores, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens restaurants and Stone Farms. We did add some beer to a used Crime (Lukcy Basartd Ale aged in Bourbon Barrels with incredibly spicy peppers added) barrel, though. Boy, it was still hot! Even with just that 3% remnant of Crime locked in the wood. I really liked it.

Barrel Aging Part III: What the Funk?

Let’s talk about funk. No, no…put away the slap bass, hi-hat and wah pedal. We’re talking about the tart, earthy, barnyardy, almost indescribable (unless you employ terms like “barnyardy”) and extremely wide-ranging characters brought on in the process of aging certain beers. While some may quaff a beverage and use that term “funky” to describe it in a negative way, the funk we go for here at Stone is an objective from the outset; a means by which to add character to already flavorful beer as a way for the base ale to be reborn as a new and deliciously provocative offspring of itself. Great examples of this funk come through in barrel-aged versions of Stone Cali-Belgique IPA, Stone “The Tiger Cub” Saison and certain additions of Stone Vertical Epic Ale. But how do we rein in the wild yeast and other organisms that create funkiness or, worse yet, infection and the “bad funk” through the lengthy evolution of our barrel-aged brews? Stone fans hit us with questions via social media and our Research & Small Batch Manager Steve Gonzalez has provided some answers to the proverbial question: What the funk?

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Barrel Aging Part II: Original Wine & Spirit Flavors

Earlier this year, we solicited questions from our fans about our barrel-aging program, then funneled all of those queries, like fine imperial stout into barrels, to our Research and Small Batch Manager Steve Gonzalez. Steve is in charge of our barrels and has a storied vocational lineage that includes many years spent at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and E&J Gallo Winery. Basically, he knows everything. (He’s not a self-proclaimed know-it-all, mind you…we’re the ones getting sublimely self-righteous on his behalf.) One of the many cool things about Steve is that he relishes the opportunity to share info about his specialized line of work. As such, he was happy to tackle our fans’ questions. He tackled so many, that we’re doling out his answers via a four-part series. This, the second installment, covers inquiries about wine and spirit flavors that are trapped in the barrels we use and ultimately lend flavor to the beers we age in those oak vessels.

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Barrel Aging, Part I: Oak Flavors

Over the past few years, we’ve gone from dabbling in the oaken arts to a full on wood obsession, stocking up on oak vessels of virgin, French and American heritage, tinged with everything from red and white vino to fortified wines and spirits. The latter have included just about every brand of fire water the mind can conjure. The results of our wide ranging barrel experiments have siphoned out to the beer-drinking public primarily via our Quingenti Millilitre line of brews, and have been well received by our fans (and us) thanks to an incredible depth of flavor that wouldn’t be possible without the woody, charred, vanilla and other flavor nuances imparted by the aging receptacles. Stone and our fans are so enamored with our barrel-aging program that, over the course of 2014, we’re sharing a four-part blog post series taking questions posed by curious Stone fans and including answers from our master of barrels, Research & Small Batch Manager Steve Gonzalez. For this, the first part of that series, he is tackling queries having to do with the imparting of oak flavors. Sit back, relax (enjoy a fine barrel-aged brew if you have one handy) and be prepared to have some serious knowledge dropped.

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Collaboration REDUX at Jolly Pumpkin this Sunday!


You may remember a tasty little beer with a long name (no surprise there) that was brewed here with Ron Jefferies of Jolly Pumpkin and Kjetil Jikiun of Nøgne-ø and released last holiday season. Well, the brewmasters had such an awesome time brewing it that they decided to brew it again—but with a slight twist. Since the original brew included ingredients from each brewery’s region, the guys thought it would be cool to brew it in each of the three regions, on three different systems, with three unique takes on the same kick-ass recipe.

With the first award-winning interpretation already under our collective belt, Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner will be heading straight from the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston to Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Michigan this Sunday to brew the second batch on Ron’s system. Jolly Pumpkin’s emphasis on open fermentation and oak aging will impart some intriguing gustatory nuances. Here’s what Mitch had to say about it (Spoiler Alert!):

“The brew is a repeat of the Jolly Pumpkin / Nøgne-ø / Stone Special Holiday Ale, but it will be fermented ‘Jolly Pumpkin’ style, meaning Brettanomyces and barrels. The idea is to use the exact same recipe in the brewhouse, but I know Ron ferments everything in barrels, and he’s got a lot of funk in his barrels, so the beer’s gonna go through this nice funkification process.”

Although the recipe will be exactly the same (we’re even sending some of the ingredients over to Ron for consistency), we’re excited to see how the brew will fare after the prolonged “funkification” process and extended barrel aging. Having had Ron’s beers, Mitch expects the beer to be “softer, a little funky, and a little tarter than our version.”

The bad news is that the beer won’t be released until holiday season 2010 to allow for barrel aging, so it’ll be a while until we can treat our taste buds to Jolly Pumpkin’s take on the brew. The good news is that Steve and Mitch are heading to Norway to brew the third iteration on Kjetil’s system at Nøgne-ø in July (Greg got to visit Nøgne-ø last year, now it’s Steve’s and Mitch’s turn!). That version, with all of the intricacies imparted by Kjetil’s system, will be released this holiday season 2009. We’ll have more information when Steve and Mitch visit Kjetil in July. One thing’s for sure—these beers will be worth the wait.

- Matt Steele