How to Not Make Money Making Beer—A Visit to the Allagash Barrel Room

By Dee Dee Germain

From the beginning, part of the Allagash mission has been to experiment. “Always an adventure” was not just our motto. We never wanted to be a beer factory. Back in 2004, in the spirit of experimentation, after some sequence of events that has been tweaked and massaged so many times, I can’t remember what the truth is, we got some barrels from Jim Beam and put beer in them.

I would love to be able to say that we only tried the Tripel because we knew that it would stand up to and compliment the bourbon and oak so well, but the truth is we put just about everything (except White) into barrels to see what would happen. The first thing that happened was a mess. Turns out you can’t just fill and bung barrels without there being some pressure related activities. A few flying bungs and puddles of beer later, we managed to figure that out. 

Now, let the tasting begin. Did you know that bourbon and wood can make a perfectly good Belgian style Dubbel taste like nothing? Even if you sit on it for years. After some initial tastings, it was evident that our Tripel was going to be the star of this show. But how long should it sit? Should we blend it or bottle it straight from the barrel? Is there alcohol pick up? If so, how much? Is this really good, or are we in it so deep we just want it to be? After about two years of messing around, I like to think we had the answer to those questions, but in the following years and continuing process of trying to see “what if”, we discovered many more.

This brings us to now. We recently took over some warehouse space across the street for our bottle conditioning room and cold beer storage. This left room in the brewery for a much needed barrel room expansion. In the years since the success of Curieux (the aforementioned Tripel aged in bourbon barrels), we have continuously tried to figure out new, fun and delicious things to put into barrels. As well as what kind of barrels we could put them in. Bourbon, American Oak, French Oak, red wine, white wine, little ones (firkins), big ones (hogsheads), bigger ones (puncheons) and “holy crap!” ones (foudres).

Space is a constant issue—space and time. Which is how I arrived at the title of this little story. The one thing that we have learned through all of this is that barrel-aging can be a very expensive way to produce beer. If time is money, then some of these barrels are priceless. The space of our new barrel room could house numerous fermenters which we could use to support the ever growing demand for our flagship White beer. That would certainly make our distributors and banks happy. We like making us happy.

In 2007, we decided to build a coolship outside of our brewery, which meant, you guessed it, more barrels. A coolship is basically a big shallow pan that holds hot wort, in an open air environment, to cool it. As it cools, wild yeast from the air falls into the wort. The next day, the cooled wort is transferred into barrels for fermentation. This fermentation process takes years. For all we knew, it wouldn’t even work. And we now had a lot more questions.

As of last summer, the swinging doors into the barrel room could only swing one way—out. God forbid we want a sample of one of our older barrels. It would take most of a day and every spare inch of production space to pull out the barrels blocking the way. Our recent expansion has solved that problem, at least temporarily. The new barrel rooms (there are now two!) are spacious and, dare I say, organized. 

So, what’s in there right now? Well, upon entering the first of the two rooms I spy a sea of Curieux. Since its inception, the popularity of this beer has continued to grow. It is now our third most popular beer. A logistical production nightmare for sure, but we still love it. Also in this room (known as the Curieux room) are a couple other “non-wild” barrels including the soon to be released Bourbon Barrel Black (aka “why not, everybody else has done it”) and some Tripel in red wine barrels. We have no plans for the later, but it’s not developing much flavor wise and that usually means something “magical” will be thrown in soon.

Now we enter the bigger of the two rooms, called “the wild barrel room”. Every barrel in here has been inoculated with some sort of wild yeast strain or bacteria. Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, Lactobacillus, not to mention whatever happened to float through the coolship room during any of our nine coolship brews so far. This room also houses our one and only Foudre. This “tank” holds roughly 2,500 gallons of beer. As of now, it is the home to a beer we made in smaller barrels a few years ago, that we are trying to replicate. Turns out, making it in a different size barrel, makes it a different beer—always learning. Mattina Rosa is kicking around in here as well. This beer was the dream of Allagash brewer Greg Devito. He wanted to brew a beer with raspberries, and that he did. A ton of them. He also wanted to call it Red Dawn to celebrate his love of Patrick Swayze movies but that didn’t quite take. Mattina Rosa will (hopefully) be released this fall. It was originally slated for release last year, but in true Allagash fashion, the flavor wasn’t where we wanted it to be, so here it sits.

Interlude is also in here, which is another barrel-aged beer that has become a regular in our lineup. It is brewed in the style of a Belgian Farmhouse Ale but then inoculated with our house strain of Brettanomyces to finish it off. Every batch takes over 6 months to make and you can taste it in every sip. There are too many random beers in here to write about them all but, with a quick glance I see some Four with strawberries, Victor Francenstein, the cryptically named Indigenuts, 80’s rocker and future beer star CC DeVille and some Fedelta, a beer we brewed last year with some brewers from DeStruisse.

Lastly, this room holds within its walls, all nine of our coolship brews. Ranging in age from almost 3 years to 6 months, some with fruit, some without and all with varying amounts of funk. The coolship beers are coming along. Every few months, we try some just to see what’s happening. We actually did a very small bottling last year and took it over to The Night of the Great Thirst in Belgium. It is a lambic festival held every year to celebrate the art of brewing spontaneous beers. Allagash was the first and only American brewery ever invited to pour beers there. Reviews were mostly positive. We may release those beers one day but that is yet to be decided. In any case, something tells me money won’t dictate that decision.

I guess the moral of this story, if there is one, is pick a good motto. That way when you make questionable business decisions in the name of loving beer, you have something to blame it on. Allagash Brewing Company—always an adventure.