Demand from commercial brewers has driven up prices on all American barrels like the standard 59-gallon wine, 53-gallon spirits. and smaller barrels boutique distillers frequently use 2–30 gallons. When buying used barrels they have to be fresh to get the best flavor from the barrel. It’s ideal to fill it within a week or so of when the distiller emptied it. The more spirits that remain in the barrel, the better, That means it should be plugged with a bung to keep the barrel sanitary. In the event that you can’t fill the barrel immediately, keep the barrel “wet” by using handles of off-the-shelf whiskey, rather than employing more dramatic methods such as sanitizers, hot water, or steam. Roll the barrel at small intervals over time to keep the interior evenly coated with spirits.
Exotic Barrels is a great avenue for procuring barrels, we have built relationships with local distillers and commercial brewers and receive offers when barrels are available. For those who would rather dabble than commit, many clubs collaborate on club beers to generate enough volume to fill a 53-gallon barrel. Barrel brokers often give discounts based on order volume. New oak barrels are commonly available from homebrewing retailers, although these will impart different flavors to your beer than barrels previously used to age spirits. Don’t bother trying to “condition” these barrels with commercial spirits, but they can be an effective option for those homebrewers who focus on barrels as souring vessels.
Generally speaking, expect one or two effective uses from a used spirits barrel. After that, don’t expect the same barrel to impart similar spirit character to your beer. Many people have used barrels for as many as two clean beers in which they age in first-use whiskey barrels and then age in second use barrels. After that second “clean” use, Fisher moves the barrels over to the sour side of his basement room and lets them embrace the funk, as the spirits in the barrel are all gone.
Use chalk on the barrel to tell he story of the beer that’s aging inside. Achieving great results with barrel projects requires patience, and it generally requires more than one barrel. Homebrewers can take a cue from commercial brewers in this regard, few commercial brewers release “single barrel” beers because blending gives them more opportunity to imbue their finished beer with a broader range of flavors.
The other method is racking soured beer out of his barrels into 5-gallon carboys, then conditioning that soured beer on fruit additions. Another great use for small oak barrels because it reduces the commitment to a single fruit. It’s more interesting to pull several 5-gallon carboys out of a 59 gallon barrel or a blend of several barrels and condition each on different fruit rather than committing an entire barrel to a single fruit.
When you pull beer out of a barrel, be quick to replace it with fresh beer to minimize the opportunity for oxidation in the barrel or the development of acetobacter. This results in some barrels aging via the solera method, where a portion of the base beer has been aging for several years, and fractional amounts of new beer replace the beer he removes from the barrel. This allows the souring bacteria culture to maintain itself, with a consistent supply of new beer for the bugs to feed on.
Most new brewers taste the barrels every week. But over time, you will learn that the timeframe necessary for significant change to the beer is much longer than that. Let the beer go several months between tasting. Like most commercial brewers, use a stainless steel drill bit to put nail holes into barrels, and stainless steel nails (often referred to as “Vinnie Nails”) to plug those holes. Sanitize the nails after taking samples, spraying the area down with StarSan.
The rate at which “clean” beer will take on the character of a spirit barrel can vary widely. With smaller spirit barrels be cautious to taste more often. A batch in a 5-gallon whiskey barrel will take on a huge barrel flavor in only two months, due to the larger surface area contact afforded by the smaller barrel. By contrast, a 55-gallon barrel might take six months to achieve the same barrel flavor. There’s no predicting when a particular barrel will be ready. Let the barrel tell you when it’s ready. Patience is the most important part of barrel aging, and that can be hard for many homebrewers who are used to more rapid gratification.
Getting the Most Out of Fruit Additions by many methods of adding fruit to sours and experiment with pluots, blueberries, peaches, mangoes, nectarines, blackberries, raspberries, and more. Fruit skins can contain bacteria of their own, no matter how well you wash them, and some commercial brewers now add their fruit additions into the whirpool to let the heat of the wort sterilize the fruit, while others pasteurize fruit puree before adding it. You can also clean then freeze his fruit before adding it to the beer, as that has produced the best results. You can also use wood for its unique flavor contributions, as well as for its ability to host a wide range of souring microorganisms.
You can add fruit in a series of two additions, starting with an initial 3-month conditioning after which rack the beer into a new carboy and add fresh fruit for another three weeks before kegging.
Homebrewers have a distinct advantage over commercial brewers in that most homebrew does not need to remain shelf stable over a longer period of time. No commercial brewery wants a customer to cellar a beer and end up with a gusher (a bottle with overactive bottle conditioning) or a “clean” beer that’s clearly gone sour. But since those souring bacteria take so long to do their thing, infection isn’t an issue for someone who will consume all of a given batch within 2–3 months. Protect your non-sour beer from infection by using separate transfer equipment for the sour and non-sour beers. Have two sets of wine thieves and auto-siphons, and keep dedicated lines within your kegerator just for sours. Be smart about spills and sanitize them quickly, plus I keep the barrels on opposite sides of the room.
The process of barrel aging beers is less intimidating than he initially believed it to be, and the results speak for themselves. You can win awards in homebrew competitions for both sour and non-sour barrel-aged beers.