By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
One of the wonderful things about craft beer is its sense of continuity. While the equipment has become more sophisticated over the years, a brewer from one or two centuries ago could walk into the brewhouse of any of our local craft breweries and easily understand the basic processes taking place in front of him. He might be awed by the stainless steel tanks, electric-powered pumps or the digital temperature readouts, but the brewing process itself would be old hat.
Such a Rip Van Winkle brewer might notice that one thing he was very familiar with is typically absent from the modern brewery: wood. For 2,000 years, beers were fermented, stored and sold in wood. It’s only relatively recently that metal, in the form of stainless steel and aluminum, replaced wood in breweries.
What we call a barrel — meaning a hollow wooden cylinder, made of vertical staves bound by wooden or metal hoops — was invented in the Balkans by the Celtic peoples who inhabited that region. Archaeological evidence confirms that they were using barrels at least as early as 350 B.C. After conquering the Celtic areas of continental Europe and most of Britain, the Romans adopted barrel-making in the third century and spread the technique throughout their empire. For the next 1,600 years or so, wooden barrels and brewing were inextricably linked.
Wooden barrels presented a lot of challenges for the brewer. They required continuous maintenance, with the associated expense, lest they develop leaks. Most breweries employed coopers on site to perform the constant repairs required, with some large concerns employing hundreds.
Wooden casks were heavy, as compared to metal ones, raising transport costs. Worst of all, wood was almost impossible to sanitize, and its porous surface provides an ideal home to many strains of microbes, any one of which could change the flavor of beer stored within. Even 100 years later, you can hear the sighs of relief with which both the company accountants and the master brewers must have greeted the arrival of affordable metal vessels.
Yet, in spite of all this, there are craft brewers today who are working hard to turn back the clock and resurrect beers aged in wood.
Up in Anchorage, Gabe Fletcher has founded the Anchorage Brewing Company. Gabe is the former head brewer at Midnight Sun Brewing Company and has gone into business on his own, using space and brewing time leased from the Sleeping Lady Brewery, located beneath the Snow Goose Pub.
The beers he is producing will all be aged in wooden barrels, barrels that will be deliberately dosed with brettanomyces yeast. Often referred to by craft beer lovers by its nickname “brett,” this yeast was first identified in 1904, by a scientist studying the causes of spoilage in British ales kept in wooden vessels. Long considered a contaminant for most styles of beers, brett is enjoying a growing popularity amongst American craft beer lovers, who find the acidic, “funky” flavors it produces intriguing.
Fletcher has bought into this trend in a big way, with 160 barrels in his aging cellar, plus another huge 660-gallon oak vessel he is using for sour beers. His first offering should be released in mid to late May, produced exclusively in 750-milliliter corked bottles and sold under the name Whiteout Wit. He plans to release five more beers, all dosed with brettanomyces and aged in wood, before the end of 2011.
Closer to home, Zach Henry at St. Elias Brewing Co. has also been very active in barrel-aging his beers. In his case, the emphasis has not been on using brettanomyces or other strange microscopic critters (at least not yet), but on ageing beers in barrels that held other alcoholic liquids. Currently, St. Elias has 20 barrels on hand to use for this purpose. Originally, he started out with barrels made from American oak and used to age bourbon whiskey. By law, such barrels can only be used once, so whiskey distilleries sell them off to people like Henry.
More recently, he’s acquired barrels that held red and white wines, as well as brandy. St. Elias gets about three uses out of each barrel, with each filling imparting progressively less flavor than the one before. The beer that results from this barrel-aging is richer and more complex, melding the flavors of the original liquid and those from the charred or toasted wood inside each barrel into the flavor profile of the beer. Once you taste a great wood-aged beer, you’ll understand why brewers like Henry and Fletcher go to all the trouble.
Speaking of St. Elias, don’t miss its big Cinco de Mayo bash, with live music and a special beer, a cask-conditioned kolsch, primed with agave syrup.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. Drinking on the Kenai appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Redoubt Reporter.