Sour Barrel Aged Beer 101 — Packaging

It’s time for our last blogpost about sour barrel aged beer. Whether it’s brewing, cellaring or packaging these beers, each step of the process takes extreme diligence and care to make sure our sour (an non sour) beers stay happy. Such is the life of employees that work at a place that makes crazy delicious barrel aged sours and non sours under the same roof!

Packaging these unique beers not only requires duplicate equipment, which takes up space, funds, and requires even more cleaning; it also takes extreme attention to detail and utmost care, as this is the last stop before the beer heads out on its way to you (and if we’re putting a beer in your hands, we want to be proud of it.)

Not only is the chance of cross contamination risky business, barrel aging introduces a plethora of other things that can potentially lead to unpredictable (and even unwanted) outcomes. If one barrel has an unwanted bug that goes undetected,  it might do nothing, or it might ruin a whole batch over time. Alas, these are the challenges we put up with to make the beer that excites us. YOLO?

This is where having a lab in-house is now twice as awesome, because we perform rigorous testing on packaged beer at different stages, which our lovely lab lady Jessica Davis will explain further. To give you an idea of how tricky this can be, check out this article, that explains how some winemakers will not even step foot into a brewery that uses certain souring bacteria.

Before we delve into the lab side of things, let’s have Tyler, our Senior Director of Brewing Operations, weigh in on the basics of our packaging routine.

What are the duties of the packaging team at The Bruery?
We have seven staff members that handle bottling, kegging, cleaning kegs, general cleaning, and building boxes.

What special steps do we have to take to avoid cross contamination of sour and non sour beers?
We have two completely separate bottling lines and separate kegging equipment. For bottling, we don’t run any sour beer through our non sour bottling lines, which are constantly cleaned. For kegging, we clean and sanitize between each run of our beers, and use a keg washer.

Any advice or lessons for others who work with sour beers packaging?
Sometimes people tend to think of packaging as a “lower level” position in the brewery, but they are actually the most important staff.

We could brew the best beer ever, but packaging determines how it’s going to be presented and tasted by the consumer. They have the ability to take a decent beer we’ve made and make it awesome, or take a great beer we made, taste bad.

Packaging has the final say in what the consumer is going to taste and I think that’s one of the most important jobs in a brewery.

And if you’re thinking about waxing your bottles … It’s a pain and takes forever!!!

And since packaging is so hugely critical, you can count on our lab being a big part of the quality assurance program. Jess handles lots of lab testing before, during, and after the packaging process to check on any unwanted microbial growth in bottles or kegs.

Packaging quality starts way before the beer makes it to the bottle, but strictly speaking about kegging and bottling, many steps are taken to ensure and continually improve quality.

These steps include

  • Implementing a swabbing program for our bottling and kegging operations. The goal of this is to help troubleshoot micro issues and give us assurance that our bottling and kegging equipment itself is not adding to any of those micro issues.
  • Identifying the type of bacteria that grows on any of the micro plates, e.g. lactobacillus, pediococcus, megasphaera, acetobacter, pectinatus, etc.

She further outlines the steps she takes in our lab for quality assurance in packaging in terms of:

  • Run beginning, and end bottles for alcohol, density and pH readings. This ensures there was no dilution of the beer during bottling. It is also really important to have pH because as we have experienced with Ebony & Oak the pH dropped after a month of being bottled.
  • Plate beginning, middle and end bottles for aerobic and anaerobic bacteria and wild yeasts.
  • If there is a significant number of counts, I will wait an incubation period and test the batch again for micro. What I am looking for is a drop in counts or no counts at all.
  • I will also get pH readings again at this point.
  • Beer is sensory approved before release and I pull bottles on a regular basis for testing mainly pH, alcohol and sensory for stability. Depending on the style I will pull beers more or less frequently.

  • Run a first and last keg sample for alcohol, density and pH readings. Again like the bottles this ensures there was no dilution of the beer during kegging.
  • At this time I do not do any micro testing on kegs, but this is going to start soon. The idea behind kegged beer is that it will be consumed quickly and as fresh as possible. Generally, with most operations, kegging is the cleanest type of packaging.
And with that, this series of stories on this topic is complete. If you’re interested in reading more about different barrel types we use, you might also like our series on our variations of Bois, our anniversary beer aged in 5 different kinds of barrels.

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