Since I started working at my local home-brew shop, I have found myself, one more than one occasion, rummaging through used home-brew equipment and unwanted “tools of the trade.” Often times, its old carboys, cases of bottles, even used beer kits from 15 years ago. Whether it’s a husband, whose wife said “no more” to the brewing, or items sold to the shop that had a much more elaborate plan that never came fruition. Sometimes you get lucky, as I did with a used 15.5 gal wine barrel. The shop had no plans to use it because of leak in one side that was deemed “unfixable.” I was told if I could get the barrel to hold liquid without leaking, I could use as I wished (for brewing purposes). Of course, this made me as giddy as that time I took Salma Hayek on a date… in my dreams that is.
Note: If you are a home brewer and someone offers you a used wine barrel (any barrel in general), take it. Even if you don’t know what to do with it yet.
This little guy has been a project in the making for a few months now. I actually got it to seal up after a long, long…. long soak in a tote filled with water. This will not even be my first time filling it with beer. Approx three months ago I added some wort, and few different varieties of souring bugs (wild yeast, bacteria, etc…) . After watching, tasting, watching and tasting, I decided I was displeased with the direction this particular beer was going. So, after much thought, I emptied it in preparation for round two. I cleaned it out again, and it is currently sitting full of a citric acid/ potassium metabisulfite solution to kill off a majority of the previous microbes, and prevent anything new from gaining a foothold.
I have dubbed this barrel San Miguel, for two reasons: It is the name of a tiny little town, which was the setting for one of the greatest westerns ever filmed. In addition, I plan to add many different characters to this barrel, which will change the setting, change the character, and add to the complexity of the aging beer. Much like is the case for any town or city. As it grows, adds residents, it becomes more complex and is often changing.
I will adopt a Solera technique for San Miguel, where after aging the current beer for long periods of time, I will bottle a portion of the beer, and then replace the bottled portion with fresh wort/beer into the barrel. Each time I add a new batch into the barrel I will add a new microbe to the mix, which should change the shape and character of the remaining cast.
Much of the inspiration for my project was provided (unbeknownst to him) by The Mad Fermentationist, whose many many posts on the matter have given me an idea on where to go with this.
I am really looking forward to seeing where this goes, and as is true with most all experiments, the unknown of what to expect is rather exciting.
The first batch that I will add to the barrel is currently in the works (as of approx one hour ago). It will be known henceforth as Ramon Rojo (if you know the movie you’ll get it).
April 27, 2014: The Fill
The Barrel was filled today. The 33% portion with Brett had been sitting for almost two months, and the 66% neutral portion has had a few weeks to do its thing. The time came to blend it all together in the barrel. In preparation for the fill, starting approx one week ago, I emptied the barrel of its citric acid/potassium metabisulfite solution. I rinsed with hot water, filled it up again and added Star San. This process was repeated every two days for the week leading up to fill day.
After rinsing the barrel out one final time, I racked as much of the ~18 gallons worth of wort into the barrel, using just a regular auto-siphon and nylon tubing (all sanitized of course). A pellicle had formed on the top of the Brett portion, which I neglected to take a picture of during the whole process.
The fill was pretty straightforward, and apart from a little spillage at the end, no major catastrophes to speak off.
Actually, I was left with three extra gallons of wort once the barrel was pretty much filled to the brim. This left over portion will be very useful in about a month. As the beer settles in, in its new home, some of it will be lost to absorption from the wood, and some more to evaporation ( I live in a very dry climate), so in approx one months time I am going to need to top the barrel up with some more beer/wort, and that extra three gallons will be perfect.
One slight miscalculation in the overall process, was the order in which I added the beer to the barrel. I started with the two buckets of neutral beer, and saved the Brett portion for last. In hindsight, I probably should have added the Brett beer first, and then topped-up with the remainder. Now, I have only a portion of the Brett beer in the barrel, while the other three gallons stays in its primary until I need to add more to the barrel. My major concern over this is not having enough Brettanomyces in the barrel to really do anything. I know there is some, but just how much, I do not know. My plan was to add all of the Brett beer, slurry and all. There are two possible outcomes from this; not enough Brett, no Brett character, that ol’ chestnut. On the other hand, under-pitching the Brett, may actually lend to a bit more character, as it may stress the yeast out. Which outcome triumphs has yet to be seen. However, this is going to be a long, drawn out, process, and I am going to be adding the remained of the Brett in approx one month, so I am not too worried about it, as there is no rush in any of this.