If you’ve visited your share of craft breweries, you’ve probably noticed that nearly all of the beer is made in sparkling stainless steel tanks.
But some breweries are carving out a special niche, finding inspiration in old wood barrels that once held bourbon, wine or, in the case of tiny Tilted Mash Brewing in Elk Grove, rum. It’s an age-old method of making beer that has become newly relevant for today’s consumers, many of whom are seeking the kind of nuance, complexity and surprise found in barrel-aged beer.
The two best barrel-aging programs in the Sacramento region are Sudwerk in Davis and Mraz in El Dorado Hills. Both breweries have produced outstanding and diverse beers made this way. Now it seems time for this segment to grow and prosper.
Why get into barrel-aging beer? What happens to the beer when it sits for months in wood? Does it really have more character nuance than beers crafted the standard way? And does spending so much time and effort creating a small batch of beer actually pencil out as a sustainable business model?
I visited Tilted Mash on Monday to chat with co-owner Derrick Prasad, a barrel-aging enthusiast. The answer to the last question is probably the simplest: Nope!
“As small as we are, it’s probably foolish for us to dabble in this because it’s not the most profitable kind of beer,” he said. “However, you want to make new and exciting things.”
This is one of the things that makes craft beer so interesting – passionate people looking to create something special even if they know it won’t make them rich.
Prasad and business partner Jonathan Martinez, who opened Tilted Mash in April, decided to try rum barrels instead of the more common bourbon and wine barrels. They brewed test batches with rum-soaked wood chips to see if they were in the right ballpark, then went ahead with what could only be called a roll of the dice.
“Rum has that molasses and sometimes that burnt-sugar flavor that works really well with dark beers. We chose to make a rye porter, 8 percent (alcohol),” Prasad said. “We call it the Rum Rye Porter, or Barrell-aged Booty, as in a pirate’s booty.”
They put the base beer into four separate barrels, all from the same distillery, and “after five weeks we started tasting and were astounded by how different each one tasted. There were wild differences. It was exciting.”
They took two of the barrels, blended them and released the porter. As precise as brewing can be, some of what happens in the barrels is beyond the brewer’s control.
“It turned out astoundingly better than I expected. Somewhere around two or 2 1/2 months, it went from tasting unfinished to after three months when the flavor changed,” Prasad told me. “It settled in. I’m overwhelmingly happy with it.”
A second version, a blend of the other two barrels that will have aged six months, is coming.
Flatland Brewing, also in Elk Grove, has embraced barrel-aging, too. Unlike Prasad, who is not fond of sour beers, Flatland’s owner/brewer Andrew Mohsenzadegan, a wine enthusiast, is a fan of sours. When he launched the brewery in January, he soon put a batch of Belgian blonde ale into barrels, added a sour yeast culture he had grown at home, then waited until July before dumping 100 pounds of local cherries into one barrel and chenin blanc grape must into the other.
“They’re screaming right now,” he said enthusiastically of the two barrel projects. “I’m really excited to see where it’s going to go.”
The cherry sour should be released within weeks – Flatland’s first bottling effort. Mohsenzadegan is also aging an imperial stout in bourbon barrels, with additions of vanilla and cocoa nibs, that he expects to be ready in time for Flatland’s first anniversary.
Of the barrel-aged, fruity magic he hopes will help define Flatland’s reputation, Mohsenzadegan said, “I think it’s a throwback. It’s very farmhouse. I love clean beer (brewed in stainless steel tanks), but my heart is really in sour beers.”