The short story
The Guild purchased a used bourbon barrel in April 2006 that we filled with barley wine. The barrel and the blending of different beers give the barrel whole new levels of complexity and flavor. Members can brew up a batch of barley wine, deposit it in the barrel, and withdraw a slightly smaller amount of beer from the barrel to take home and enjoy.
The Keeper of the Barrel
Randy deBeauclair is the keeper of the barrel. Ask on the club email list if you don’t know him. It’s up to him to let us know when we’re running low, if we’re taking deposits so fast we can’t maintain the barrel’s character, or to say that a beer isn’t appropriate for the barrel (if, for example, it’s obviously tainted).
The Fine Print
- The AABGBBBW project is on the Solera System, where we consistantly add and draw off from the barrel. (See also the story of Walloon solera ale in Sweden that has been going for 200 years.)
- Any member can bring five gallons a a fully-fermented batch of the AABGBBBW recipe to Randy’s and exchange it for 4 gallons of the current blend. The gallon is for the “angels share.”
- We try to keep the barrel from getting low, which could turn the beer to vinegar, so at times the club resorts to bribery, such as offering that brewers who brewed a 10 gallon batch could have the club reimburse the entire amount for the ingredients and deposit 10 gallons, and get back 5.
- Anyone who wishes to brew a 10 gallon batch and take five gallons back will be reimbursed for half the ingredient costs (grains, yeast and hops).
- Anyone who brewed in the original fill who wishes to withdraw 4 gallons of the batch can brew 5 gallons and have the club reimburse the ingredients.
- If Randy moves, the original 11 get their contribution back if they haven’t brewed again under Rule #4. Any members who have moved to South Carolina or can’t make the final dump party will see their contribution drained into the bellies of all AABG members present.
- You can read about the founding of the project.
The Longer Story
(From Jeff Renner)
In the summer of 2005, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild had a road trip that included Jolly Pumpkin and Arbor Brewing, so they decided to stop at my house, since it was between the two, so that they could say that they’d been to the center of the homebrewing universe. The neighbors were looking out their windows when a Greyhound-sized bus backed into my driveway and 45 people got out!
On of the tourers was Tom, who had (has?) a business of picking up freshly emptied bourbon barrels in Kentucky and delivering them to breweries. I said I was interested in one for the club and he said he’d let me know when his next delivery was to the area. That turned out to be around January, as I recall. I’m not sure when I actually got club approval for the project, but it must have been around then. Tom gave us the price that was normally for multiple barrel deliveries!
Jim Suchy and I met Tom at Arbor Brewery and Jim took the barrel to my house. I dumped a liter of cheap bourbon in it to keep it sweet and wet and rolled it around every few days. Since it was cold in my garage, it kept fine.
I came up with an English barley wine recipe with an OG of 1.100 and eleven of us brewed it. We did it our own expense with no idea of taking any out personally. We just didn’t think it out all the way I guess. Most contributed five gallon corneys but I had a 7.75 gallon quarter barrel Sankey.
Randy volunteered to house the barrel since he wasn’t planning to move any time soon and had a walk-out basement. It also didn’t hurt that he was young and would be around a good while! He must have picked up the barrel. Someone (Aron?) made stillage for it to rest on. We met on a Saturday in April, 2006, to fill it. Jay Wince and some other Zanesville homebrewers joined us.
We dumped out the bourbon I’d added and it was black as India ink until we ran it through a coffee filter to remove the charcoal from the charred barrel. It was much improved since it picked up some of the original 12-year-old barrel proof Elijah Craig bourbon from the barrel.
We tasted each batch to make sure it was OK. The OG’s varied a good bit. They all were fine except for one that was phenolic. We feared an infected batch until we looked at the recipe and saw that some rascal (Mike or Mark?) had sneaked in a few percent peat smoked malt! Happily, it was diluted to below taste threshold.
Summary Email sent out by Jeff Renner on Monday April 10th, 2006:
More than a dozen of us got together Saturday afternoon at Randy’s to fill the bourbon barrel with barleywine and it went great.
There were 12 brewers in the end who brewed for a nominal total about
57 gallons, but no doubt a bit less actually. The barrel holds about
53 gallons, and we didn’t fill it bung full to allow for foaming if it occurred, so we kept back about 4.5 gallons (of mine, since I brewed 7.75 gallons) for topping up to replace evaporation or other losses, including sampling for meetings.
People pitched in to do the jobs necessary, and we had as many as three kegs flowing at once. We got the whole filling done in less than two hours with cleanup, and had a good time doing it.
The first job was emptying out the liter of cheap bourbon I’d put into the barrel in January to keep it moist and sweet. We only recovered about a third of it, and what we got was ~115 proof rather than the 80 proof we put into it. I think that it mixed with the barrel proof (~130 proof) bourbon left in the charred interior of the barrel. It was tastier than the original, but still had the typical young notes that a four-year-old bourbon from Heaven Hill Distillery has. It sure wasn’t the Elijah Craig 12-year-old that the barrel originally held!
On to the beers. We vetted each one just to be sure it was sound, and they all were. Most of them clustered in style with one another
– sweet, rich, bitter, pretty well balanced. They varied from OG
1.085 to 1.115 and probably averaged at just about the target of
1.096 (I’ll do an actual average later, or maybe Randy will). FG ranged from 1.014 to 1.045. Remarkably, the lowest FG was from the highest OG – a 101 point drop!
As I said, most beers were similar, but there were three outliers.
Derek Sheehan’s 1.114–>1.014 had us worried a bit because we were concerned that it might have a wild yeast or bacteria infection that took it down so far, and the whole barrel would go that dry, but it was sound with no sign of infection, so we used it. It was very dry and alcoholic, with not much malt left. It will balance out some of the underattenuated ones.
(Derek – any idea why yours attenuated so far? Low mash temp, vigorous oxygenation, use of sugars, killer yeast?)
Mike O’Brien wasn’t there, and we were puzzled by the vanilla notes.
Someone in the know said that Mike had used a secret ingredient, and it wasn’t vanilla. Of course we guessed spruce, since Mike likes to use spruce boughs, but that wasn’t it. It was finally revealed to have been fir – apparently the O’Brien family Christmas tree! It will add subtle complexity.
The big worry was Mark Ohrstrom’s – it had a distinct phenolic note both in the aroma and in the taste. I was concerned about wild yeast
– the kind that might even get going in the whole batch. we discussed this for a while, and then Mark reminded us that he had sneaked in 2 ounces (only) of old peat-smoked malt! That cleared that up, and we went ahead and ran it into the barrel. It is amazing that such a little smoked malt had such an influence on five gallons, but it should be lost in 53 gallons. (I hope!)
Randy reported this morning that the barrel hasn’t leaked a drop, but it also isn’t bubbling through the air lock. He suspects that it’s because the wooden bung isn’t making an airtight seal. He’ll check it with a flashlight to see if there is foam. If there isn’t, he’ll run some more beer in to top it up.
(Randy – I bet if you whack the bung with a mallet, it will seal, although you might have to wrap the stem of the bubbler in electrical
tape to make it seal. After all, the original bung sealed tight.
Some distilleries even stack the barrels on end without leaks.)
A number of people took pictures. If you will send me a small selection of these, I will put together the whole thing to post on the AABG web site, and maybe even put together a Zymurgy article.
Our plan is to have Randy fill a bottle for the next few meetings, or every meeting until it seems to stabilize. We’ll fill a 3 gallon keg for Big Brew in May (don’t have to drink it all – we can just return
it) for a first taste.
Thanks to all participants!