During Good Beer Week in May, two pioneers in the area of barrel ageing came together to create a beer. They share much in common.
Boatrocker operates what could well be the largest barrel program in the Australian craft beer industry and annually releases an iconic barrel aged imperial stout, Ramjet, plus a few variations on the theme.
Goose Island operates one of the largest barrel programs in the United States and annually releases an iconic barrel aged imperial stout, Bourbon County Stout, plus a few variations on the theme.
Both brewing companies have also been able to accelerate and expand their barrel programs thanks to the injection of new funds into their businesses, although here things start to diverge.
Boatrocker – now Boatrocker Brewers & Distillers since merging with Perth's Hippocampus – brought in Made By HAND, a group made up of the team that launched Little Creatures / Little World Beverages, as part-owners in 2015. Prior to that, in 2011, Chicago brewery Goose Island was bought by the company now known as AB InBev, which today is responsible for producing one in every three beers consumed on the planet.
So, while Boatrocker was able to open and start to populate a Barrel Room ahead of schedule, its operation remains a drop in the ocean compared to the facility Goose Island has developed over the past half decade. To put things in context, the 300 barrels at Boatrocker represents two percent of the Chicago brewery's stock.
What their collaboration offers – other than putting the October Beer on shelves from this week – is an ideal opportunity for us to run a unique two-parter in our occasional Day In The Life series. So, today, we step inside the Boatrocker Barrel Room with brewery co-founder Matt Houghton; tomorrow, we feature Goose Island's Bill Savage, who Nick O spent time with earlier in the year.
"It was an opportunity to pick Bill's brains about barrel production," says Matt of their brew day and subsequent night out in Melbourne. "You don't get to be the barrel manager at Goose Island without good reason. He knows wood and what can be achieved with it.
"We are tiny, so the opportunity to learn how they manage 15,000 barrels efficiently, how they eradicate any issues early on – that's pretty significant for us."
As for the October Beer, it's, well, an October beer – a strong ale precursor to barley wines with origins in 18th Century England. In this case, it's been aged in Starward Whisky barrels, adding further rich, juicy sweetness to the SMASH (Single Malt And Single Hop) base beer.
"We both agreed not to brew an imperial stout because we already have well recognised versions," says Matt. "We wanted to do something left of centre, so that's where the idea for an October beer came in.
"Farm estates used to have their own breweries and would make beer for their workers as it was safer to drink than the water. But the big beers they made would be fed to the lords. There was a March beer and an October beer, which would be brewed in October, kept in barrels throughout winter and then served. So we brewed ours in May to age through our winter."
The collaboration beer is available now but, first, join us as we step inside Boatrocker's Barrel Room and inside Matt's mind to find out what led him to pursue such beers so vigorously.
What first sparked your interest in using barrels in the production of beer?
My interest in using barrels began many years ago (19 years, to be exact) when I was backpacking through Europe. My guidebook back then was not Lonely Planet or Frommer's, but Michael Jackson’s pocket guide to beer. My first city to stop into was Brussels and my first brewery was Cantillon.
I’d been home brewing for eight or nine years by then and wood was not something I was really thinking about until that first trip to Cantillon. It has always been in my mind to use barrels from that moment, although the reality took a lot longer to achieve!
How did you go about educating yourself in what is still a very niche realm of the Australian craft beer industry?
The education of how to age beer in wood came about through years of personal experience and through self education. As a homebrewer, my garage was my laboratory. I would create so many different types of beers, mostly based on what I wanted to drink (not much has changed in my profession either!).
They might have been pretty selfish reasons, but at the time – 1988 to 2000 – there wasn't a lot of choice in what you could drink. A couple of small breweries popped up that offered the local drinker something different, but access was hard and, as a uni student, I’d brew beer instead of buy it.
I’ve always been an avid learner in that I like to know the hows and whys and, if I couldn’t find the answer, I’d give it a try and see what happened – something that carries over to Boatrocker this very day. To put it in perspective, when I travelled to Belgium back in 1998, the internet was still very new, and information is nowhere near as accessible as it is now. I purchased every book available on barrel ageing and barrel aged beers. There is an excellent, although very thin, book on Lambic by a Belgian author called Jean-Xavier Guinard. It cost about $150, but was well worth it.
So, when we started Boatrocker back in 2009, I was accessing data I’d built up over years of homebrewing. Unfortunately, as a gypsy brewer (as we were back in 2009), the idea of creating an intentionally sour beer through someone else’s brewery was an absolute no-no. But, as soon as we built our own facility in Braeside, the first thing we did was buy 60 used wine barrels. The idea of wood aged commercial scale beer was no longer a pipe dream, it was a reality.
Beers that as a homebrewer were aged on wood chips were now to be aged in real barrels…
Were you able to experiment with oak before embarking on commercial releases in the brewery?
My only experimentations were with oak chips bought from the homebrew store. And there were some very interesting creations to say the least! But you learn so much about the flavour and aroma that is imparted by wood on beer. Plus chips allow you to determine how different spirits will react with wood and beer too.
I guess one of the biggest differences between chips and barrels is the effect of longterm ageing and oxidation in sour beers. That is only something you can learn from commercial experience, or a very large homebrew setup!
Ramjet is perhaps your best known barrel aged beer – is it your favourite?
I hope I don’t elicit a whole lot of groans, but I honestly believe that the best barrel aged beer is the one I have in front of me… It so depends on the time of day, the weather and how I’m feeling.
Right now, it’s 6pm on Friday and I’m drinking an October beer. Unchilled, big whisky flavour, great malt flavour, delicious. It’s currently my favourite. But next week, when it’s a bit overcast, and it’s hump day, a Ramjet might be my best. Then when it’s summer, and I need something quenching, maybe Mitte?
I really am a big believer in a different beer for a different time/place/emotion etc.
What are the different ways you use barrels in the brewery?
Besides furniture, we use barrels as fermenters, as ageing vessels, as quick(ish) flavour imparters (is that a word?). It really depends on the barrels we have and the beer we want to make.
For example, our Ramjet is a big beer and will spend about six months in barrel, where we will not only try to get as much whisky flavour, but also a great oak flavour. Compare this to Mitte; it’s a Berliner Weisse aged in oak barrels, where the amount of oak flavour is minimal (but present) and the Brettanomyces character is predominant.
There’s a degree of romance attached to barrel ageing beer. What’s the reality when you’re doing it every day?
There is something incredibly romantic about barrels, and the sight of them really evokes a sense of nostalgia and history. When I walk into our barrel room, I really get excited at what is happening in there. So many unknowns, and so much wonderful beer...
But then the reality kicks in. Working with small barrels is a LOT of manual handling, and each of these barrels on racks is heavy – 50kg plus depending on size – and awkward to lift. Then there is the cleaning, and maintenance and testing of beer.
It is incredibly time consuming and physical hard work, more so than everyday brewing. But the end results are pretty much worth it; you’ve just got to love your job.
How critical are you about the barrels you use?
Very. We’re very particular about the quality of beer we want to produce and, if we are going to age a lot of expensive beer in an expensive barrel for a long time, I want to make sure we have given that beer every chance of succeeding. We will always let our nose and eyes be the judge of the barrels.
Do you aim for the same end product from year to year with annual releases?
We aim for ballpark. We want people to associate with past vintages, but we’re realists as far as what we can achieve. The recipe will be adjusted depending on final outcome, and we also blend some barrel aged beers to come up with a flavour profile we like.
How do you monitor quality?
Unfortunately, at our size, we don’t have any fancy lab, so our testing is limited to what we can send off to a private laboratory. All our "clean" barrel beers, for example spirit barrel beers that go through our standard pack line, with be tested for wild yeast and bacteria and ABV. All our "wild" beer will be taste tested prior to packaging and, as they’ve been refermented in bottle, we hold onto product for six weeks after packaging and do another final test before releasing to market. We also hold retentions from every batch to monitor how they are ageing.
Do you get rid of a lot of barrels?
I guess it’s all relative? On average we use our spirit barrels once for clean beers and then turn them into longterm sour producers. Our sour barrels we try and re-use as much as possible.
Where do you see barrel beers fitting into the wider market?
In Australia, I think barrel beers will remain fairly niche for a few years yet. There is so much more to be done with barrels and wood ageing in Australia (see below) and I think that, unless the consumer can get a cheap everyday barrel aged (or foeder aged) beer, then it won’t cut too much into the pale ale segment (although will anything?).
But then I also see beers like Ramjet becoming more and more widespread, and I hope we can see some barrel sour beers doing the same thing. I don’t think it’s fair of me to want barrel beers to compete with pale ales, as I guess it’s like comparing good rib eye to a beautiful piece of dry aged rib eye. Both are delicious, but one with more complexity and depth, and perhaps not deserving of being an everyday swiller, but instead one to keep and savour.
What's going to be keeping you busy in the Barrel Room in the near future?
We’ve been busy installing the Hippocampus distillery. We’re excited about the potential that this will afford us to keep on producing interesting and delicious beers. The ideas are flowing already, but these will have to be a surprise!
Tomorrow, join us for part two as Nick O spends time inside the rather larger Goose Island barrel facility with Bill Savage.