Careful Cellaring, Part 4: The Barrel Maintenance Program for Living Beer

We couldn’t have a blog series on the intricacies of beer cellaring without addressing the challenges and benefits of having barrel program like ours at The Bruery. In order to produce beer that is up to our quality standards, our wood cellarmen must take utmost care in working with our barrels and beer. To further explain how our barrels are taken care of, our team of wood cellarmen, Cesar Alfaro and Brett Richman, explain the basics and some FAQs.

Here at The Bruery it’s the wood cellarmen’s duty is to make sure that the beer that comes out of barrels are of best quality and, of course, taste delicious. In order to do so we take a lot of measures to make sure the barrels are in perfect condition before beer goes into them.

When barrels arrive at The Bruery, they come in various conditions.  Wine barrels are often coming in fairly dry, cleaned, sulfured or ozonated at the winery and sitting empty for up to a few months.  Because the barrels are to hold liquid for human consumption, when they are constructed, they are completely void of glue or any other chemical. That’s right, it’s just the staves (the arched, wooden slats that make up the barrel) aligned in the most perfect manner which holds in all that beer.

To make sure that wine barrels are going to hold the precious beer that goes into them, we first fill them with hot water to help swell the wood to make sure the barrels have a complete seal. It’s important that the barrels won’t leak out all the beer they’ll be holding and aging over time.

Once the barrels are able to hold their wort(h), we want to make sure that the only organisms in the barrel are the ones that we want. For that we have an industrial sized steamer that spews out 200º+ steam to get rid of all those unwanted bugs (unless it’s a sour beer, in which case we do want some of those specific, residual souring bugs). We then stick a bung in the bung hole (real terms, people!) and it quickly creates a vacuum effect sucking all extra gunk and impurities out of the pores of the wood and making an airtight seal.

The barrel stays empty and plugged up until the very moment where we dump out all of those impurities and then fill it up with beer.

“But Cesar, what happens to the barrel after that, once it’s been emptied of the beer?” Good question, Joe Schmoe.  Our bourbon / spirit barrels are used just once (except when we use them for Tart of Darkness), the others are turned into planters, backyard props, doggie beds, or wood flooring.

If we’re racking sour beer into the barrels, it is a matter of simply filling it back up and continuing the aging process all over again. If the barrel has been emptied of sour beer and is not getting filled up again anytime soon, we normally use sulphur to preserve the barrel and keep any crud from growing inside. This can be done one of 2 ways;

  1. Burn a sulphur disc inside the barrel essentially fumigating the barrel, which is then repeated every six to eight weeks as needed.
  2. Use a liquid storage solution that is a combination of potassium metabisulphite, citric acid, and water to keep growth from happening and also keep the barrel from drying out.

This is barrel care in a nutshell. Along with mopping. LOTS of mopping.

The Bruery — Keeping a Clean Barrel Cellar from The Bruery on Vimeo.

Post written by Cesar Alfaro, one of our packaging team members turned Barrel Whisperer. Cesar is a talented homebrewer and cheesemonger who also goes to lots of epic music shows where he unleashes his glorious flowing locks of El Salvadorian hair.

Read more of our cellaring series:

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