Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 2: Cost

This second part in the series attempts to compare the cost for different oak aging alternatives as well as providing some resources that can be used by the homebrewer and pro brewer. I want to clarify that this is only covering cost. As a person that cares about the product they produce, cost is always evaluated separately from quality. This was more put together as a good reference to know general price points for the different alternative oak aging options.

 Cost matters (size doesn't, well not totally true wait till part 4 of the series). The table below was created based on recommendations from the manufacturer as to how much of their product is needed to be equivalent to a "new barrel". "New Barrel" refers to how much oak flavor you will get if your wine (or beer) was placed in a freshly toasted ~60 gal oak barrel. This quantity is likely too much for almost every beer style and is geared toward oak forward wine styles. The typical amounts to use in different beers styles will be discussed in Part 4: Extraction and Use.

Oak Cubes Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $/lb* $/"New Barrel" Vendor
American Oak Med + 24 oz $20.00 $30.00 MoreWine
Hungarian Oak Med + 24 oz $25.00 $37.50 MoreWine
French Oak Med + 24 oz $33.00 $49.50 MoreWine
Amer. Oak med + 24 oz $6.50 $9.75 Oak Chips, Inc **
Fren. Oak med + 24 oz $8.50 $12.75 Oak Chips, Inc **
Oak Spirals Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $ $/"New Barrel" Vendor
American Oak Med +  6 pack-1.5"x 9" $50.00 $50.00 The Barrel Mill
French Oak Med +  6 pack-1.5"x 9" $79.00 $79.00 The Barrel Mill
Oak Chips Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $/lb $/"New Barrel" Vendor
American Oak Med + 24 oz $6.00 $9.00 MoreWine
French Oak Med + 24 oz $9.00 $13.50 MoreWine
Honeycombs Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $ $/"New Barrel" Vendor
Multiple Wood Types Barrel Pack $55.00 $55.00 Black Swan Cooperage
Staves Segments Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $ $/"New Barrel" Vendor
French Oak Med + 96 oz $20.00 $120.00 MoreWine
Staves Qty for "New Barrel" Flavor Cost $ $/"New Barrel" Vendor
American Oak Med +  Barrel Replica $99.00 $99.00 MoreWine
French Oak Med + Barrel Replica $124.00 $124.00 MoreWine
*Shipping not included
** Pricing may vary, must request

As I transitioned over the last year into the commercial brewing side one of my main duties was to source the equipment and supplies for our barrel program at Council Brewing. I soon realized that it was not quite as user friendly as ordering homebrew supplies. I first started looking for used wine and spirit barrels by checking the wine business used barrel classifieds. This was a good start and I still use it, but it is mostly geared toward medium to large producers. (If possible, the ideal situation is to find a local wine or spirit producer to partner with). However, several of the barrel brokers would post as well. I decided to compile their company names and list what they generally offer. This should at least help people get started and find a few contacts.

If you have any questions or any reference information for me to add please leave a comment.

Barrel Program Resources
Barrel Brokers
Company Website Racks Spirit Barrels Wine Barrels
Country Connection     X           X
Quality Wine Barrels     X           X            X
Barrels Unlimited, Inc           X            X
The Barrel Broker     X           X           X
Griffin Barrel bourbonbarrel at           X
Rocky Mountain Cooperage           X           X
Kelvin Cooperage           X
Barrel Builders           X
5 Star Barrels           X
Alasco Rubber & Plastics Corp. Dalco Duall Complete Bungs
Oak Alternatives
Oak Chips, Inc. (OCI) Oak Cubes, Segments, Chips, Staves
Barrel Mill Oak Barrels, Spirals
Oak Infusion Spiral Oak Spirals
Black Swan Cooperage Multiple Wood Honeycombs, Barrel

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 1: Background

I really enjoy oak aged and oak fermented beers. It might have something to do with my first real craft beer being a Firestone DBA. For the styles I enjoy the most (Farmhouse and sour styles), I find as an almost absolute rule that the beer is always better with some oak added. Oak adds a lot more than just flavor to beers and often adds what Brett and bacteria take away. With a caveat that you should use the proper amount and match the flavors correctly. I think of oak flavors as Belgian brewers often refer to spice additions, "The use of spices should enhance flavor notes already present, but if you can tell which spice has been used then you have added too much."

For our barrel program at Council Brewing, I wanted to decide how I was going to integrate oak into our batches. We are using almost exclusively neutral barrels, at least oak neutral, most of them still have some wine or spirit flavor remaining. This brought me to the point where I need to look at oak alternatives. I thought it would be a good idea to compile some of the work I've done lately for Council Brewing to really firm up some of my ideas on oak aging. As far as flavor, I've always had some good general ideas on what type of oak would work well in beers (i.e. med + or heavy toast American oak in clean, dark malt-forward beers and med or med + French oak in lighter, clean or funky yeast-forward beers), but I'll be writing in much more detail about specific flavors and profiles I think they match. For cost, ease of use and extraction rate, I've always used oak cubes, but have recently been exploring other options. It seemed the best idea to split this topic into 4 segments and explore each aspect in its own depth.

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 1: Background

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 2: Cost

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 3: Flavors

Exploring Oak Aging Alternatives Part 4: Extraction and Use

There is surprisingly little (useful) information available on the web (way too much generic wine speak). I have gathered together a few resources that are well put together and should give you a good basic understanding.

All About Oak and Red Wine - Written by Shea Comfort
Thee best overview on the basic components in oak and how they vary due to species (French, Hungarian and American), toast level (light, med, med +, heavy) and form (chips, cubes, segments, staves).

Firestone Walker Barrelworks Educational Posters
Covers most of  the same things as the Shea Comfort article, but is more graphic based and easier to understand based on your learning style. Even worthy of printing and hanging in your brew space.
Stage 1: The Oak
Stage 2: The Barrel
Stage 3: The Taste

It's good to be back writing again and the next part in this series should be posted in the coming weeks.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Barrel Filling Brew Day at Council Brewing

Curtis in front of the brew system and filling the
red wine barrels with Flanders Red
With the announcement of the Council Brewing Barrel Program, this post will be the start of transitioning from my homebrew adventures into the semi-pro. I will do my best to keep writing about upcoming batches, which we already have about 8 in the pipeline. I'll be sharing recipes and our techniques (oak aging, new yeast combos (like wine + Brett), blending and diversifying batches.

A couple months ago, I took a "day off" work to do a double brew day and fill 4 wine barrels. The goal was to fill 2 Gewurztraminer barrels with our standard Saison base and 2 red wine blends with a Flanders Red. We expecting the Saison to be ready in the heat of the summer and the Flanders will probably be our 1st Anniversary beer.

The morning started off with filling the mash-tun. Since we have a relatively small brew system it made sense to use an on demand hot water heater instead of a dedicated hot liquor tank. The on demand hot water heater has a few settings that we can control to hit the correct strike water temps. As with any new system it took a little time to figure out the amount of heat lost to the mash tun, but once up to temperature the thermal mass of the tun/grain keeps the temperature very consistent (one advantage of a larger system). As we mashed in we also added lactic acid to drop the pH down into the 5.2 range. (since this batch we have switched to phosphoric acid for better economy. I prefer to aim for the lower pH range for Saisons as I feel this gives the beer a more "crisp" and refreshing flavor. Along with a very dry finishing gravity the low pH helps to make this beer disappear off your palate quickly.)

Recirculating the Saison mash through the grant
Sparge arm in the 3BBL mash tun at Council Brewing
After hitting the pH (another note on adjusting with acid is that its good to add incrementally as once the buffering capacity is reached the pH will drop quickly) and a mash temp we let the beer rest. The next step is slightly different than most homebrew setups in that we use a grant. The grant helps to ensure you are not pulling on the grain bed with the pump, plus in our case it also whirlpools the wort to help with any particulate that comes through the mash. Once re-circulation is complete, we attach the sparge arm and then pump directly into the kettle.

Transferring wort from the mash tub into the direct fire boil kettle
The kettle's capacity is around 130 gals so its has plenty of room to boil for a full 3BBLS (~93). We usually knock-out with ~100 gals and for the barrel brew days we aim a bit higher. This 3 BBL kettle is also about the biggest practical size that can be direct fired without a custom burner system. Any larger and it would make sense to go to a steam fired kettle, but that involves more capital. The boiling process is just like a homebrew setup until we are done and pump into the whirlpool tank.

Whirlpool Vessel being filled at Council Brewing
We will whirlpool until all the wort is transferred and longer if hops are added for flavoring. The wort still remains fairly hot up near the 200 F range, so you are still extracting IBUs. Once the whirlpool is complete we will pump through a plate chiller (this gets the wort down to about 100 F) and then a copper coil in an ice bath which we can control the flow rate to get us to the appropriate pitching temperature. Coming out of the plate chiller we have an inline diffusion stone to aerate the wort during the transfer to the fermentor.

Curtis getting the ice bath and chiller ready
 for knock-out into the barrels
For these barrel batches and most of our future barrel batches, we will be doing the primary fermentation in the barrel. This is done to save fermentor space (especially since we are adding bacteria and Brett in primary) and barrel fermentation is also reported to help build structure (at least with wine). A 3BBL(~93 gal) system works almost perfectly for filling 2 wine barrels (57 gal). Since we can yield about 100 - 110 gals of wort and fill the barrels with about 50 gals and reserve 2 - 5 gal carboys to top up after primary fermentation calms down. This amount of headspace worked well to prevent any beer loss and we do also add some Ferm Cap to hedge our bet. We fit stoppers and blow-off tubes for the most violent fermentation and then switch to breathable bungs for the extended aging process. The beers will remain on the yeast cake for this entire lifetime, which will make beer that is more Brett forward as the dead Sacc yeast makes a good carbon source for the Brett. If we find that some beers/styles are too Brett forward then we may switch to doing primary in a conical before transferring to the barrels.

Me up on the ladder watching the fill level on each barrel
For tracking each barrel's progress we have added sleeves with tracking notes about the beer. We have installed "Vinnie nails" to all our barrels, which involves buying the following from McMaster Carr ( I looked locally and couldn't find anything):

1" 4d smooth common nail – 316 stainless steel McMaster Carr #97990A102
2” 6d smooth common nail - 316 stainless steel McMaster Carr #97990A104
Adding Saison yeast to the
Gewurztraminer barrels

We added our nails after the barrels were filled. Curtis used an old carpenter trick and used the SS nail with the head torn off as a drill bit (or you could use a 7/64 drill bit) . It worked easily and was actually much less exciting than either of us were expecting. The barrels will actually swell quite quickly, which caused us to drill a few times till the beer poured out nicely.

Hopefully that provided a semi detailed look into filling barrels on the nanobrewery level. Future posts will focus more on new lessons learned and more details on each batch. If you have questions please feel to ask in the comments or let me know if you want to check it out in person.

My little one having fun with the sign at Council Brewing
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