Barrell-Aging: Sourcing Craft Beer’s Chosen Vessels

Barrell-Aging: Sourcing Craft Beer’s Chosen Vessels

Vinnie Cilurzo doesn’t just pick any ol’ wine barrels to barrel-age his internationally renowned sour beers.

Co-owner and head brewer of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, Calif., Cilurzo partners regularly with about a half-dozen wineries in his own backyard in the noted wine region of Sonoma County. In Cilurzo’s case, familiarity breeds contentment—and some mighty complex brews.

“They each have a specialty, typically, that I like,” Cilurzo said, “but because we are matching specific beers with a barrel that has a specific wine in it previously—Temptation is chardonnay, Supplication is pinot and Consecration is cabernet—we’re hitting wineries that make these specific varieties. We’re not just going out and buying (barrels) generically. And we almost never use a broker because we’re in wine country and we’ve got the relationships, so we tend to do everything direct. I can inspect the barrels.”

With today’s “rage to age” in the craft beer world, developing direct relationships with barrel suppliers is becoming more and more advantageous for breweries. Quality, availability and proud regionality all come into play.

While Cilurzo does source some of his wine barrels from California’s Napa Valley, nearly all of them come from Sonoma.

“The truth is, it’s a local product,” said Cilurzo, who examines each barrel personally to ensure they’re liquid-tight and free of off-aromas. “When I started making barrel beers back in the late 90s, the whole premise was to take my favorite component from lambic beer, which is Brettanomyces (yeast), and make a barrel-aged beer using local wine barrels. That was part of our mission statement—to use local barrels—and it’s certainly a natural fit with our location and abundance we have available to us.”

Brett Meets Biltmore

In the case of three western North Carolina breweries, a world-famous wine region may not be out the back door, but one of the East Coast’s top tourist attractions is. The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home which draws a million visitors annually to the Asheville area, has a winery on site—an alluring proposition for a wood-happy brewery like Wicked Weed Brewing.

As a rookie brewery at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, Wicked Weed took home a gold medal for Serenity, a 100 percent Brett, barrel-aged Belgian-style farmhouse ale. Now just 15-months-old, the brewery already boasts nearly 400 barrels and has more on the way, with a 75/25 ratio of wine to whiskey barrels.

Among Wicked Weed’s first wine barrels were those from Biltmore, and while Biltmore barrels currently comprise only about 10 percent of the brewery’s inventory, Wood Cellar Manager Walt Dickinson said he continues “working really hard on that partnership.”

“The wines they’re [Biltmore] making are really solid and they translate really nicely to beer, and just having that local synergy between the two, that’s going to be a great relationship, said Dickinson. “For us it’s much better to have a relationship with a wine-maker—I can go visit, I can pick up the barrels, I can help them out and reciprocate by sending back the barrels with our beer in them. That’s beautiful, that’s like half the stuff we’re doing here where we’re creating these collaboration beers. I mean, I’m going over to the local chocolate shop and working with them, and I’m going to the local coffee roaster. That’s what’s cool about being in Asheville is that you have all these artisans and craftsmen—it sure makes brewing for me a lot of fun.”

Biltmore works with Wicked Weed, Highland Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues Brewery on an informal basis, capitalizing on an additional opportunity to creatively retire wine barrels, said Biltmore spokeswoman Marissa Jamison. According to Jamison, this practice harkens back to the original spirit of Biltmore.

“When George Vanderbilt built the estate at the turn of the (20th) century, he was really into sustainable farming,” Jamison said. “The entire land that he purchased was clear-cut and over-farmed and over-used, and so he brought in landscape designers and people to help him establish a really sustainable estate. And so we continue that today in trying to create sustainability wherever we can in reusing and recycling—and we do the same with our wine barrels, trying to recycle barrels and reuse them and put them back into the local community whenever we can.”

Jamison added: “Craft beer has become a huge industry in the area with people like Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues, and I think this partnership really speaks to the spirit of the Asheville community.”

For the breweries in the area, having a local name like Biltmore attached your beer isn’t a bad proposition, either.

Oskar Blues currently is using Biltmore barrels to age its Mama’s Little Yella Pils, Old Chub Scotch ale and GUBNA imperial IPA.

“We’ve definitely enjoyed using their barrels and plan on getting more,” said Noah Tuttle, head brewer at Oskar Blues’ Brevard, N.C., facility. “They’re great wine barrels. I, personally, love Mama’s in the white wine barrels, especially for summertime—it’s one of my favorite beers.”

Barrel-Aging Sharing Game

Like Russian River, Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine, has a large wood program of about 600 barrels. But while Russian River focuses exclusively on wine barrels for sour/wild-beer production, Allagash’s stable includes about 250 whiskey barrels.

All of them currently come directly from Jim Beam, “which is very fortunate for us to have such a relationship with them,” said Dee Dee Germain, head of marketing and communications for Allagash. “They’ve been good allies of ours for quite a few years now.”

Allagash also sources wine barrels, both directly from wineries and also from barrel brokers. Germain said that with the recent explosion in popularity of sour beers, it’s become harder and harder to source the barrels directly from winemakers, thus underscoring the importance of close connections.

Sometimes, fortuitous circumstances fall into a brewer’s lap when it comes to acquiring barrelage. For Allagash, that happened last year when former brewer Ned Wight—Allagash founder Rob Tod’s first employee—opened Maine Distilling, just around the corner from the brewery. Allagash now uses Wight’s rum barrels to age beer, and works with a local meadery to trade its barrels used for Allagash’s bourbon barrel-aged Belgian triple, Curieux.

“So we age beer in it, then they age mead in it, and now we’re aging beer in their mead barrel, and we jokingly say we’re going to give it back to them to do something else with it,” Germain said. “But I think as these smaller breweries and wineries and distilleries and meaderies open, there’s more of that kind of sharing that goes on—it’s more of a supporting community rather than it being a bigger business. I think (barrel aging) was something so new a few years ago, and now as everybody is kind of getting into it, there will be a lot more sharing, or at least it seems to be going in that direction.”

Photo © Megan Culberston