This post is part of a series (of indefinite length) about how I am working with the Yards Brewing Company and brewer Franklin Winslow to help create wild and barrel aged beers at the brewery. Hopefully Beer Appreciators everywhere will find the process as interesting as I do… Maybe some day you can even taste some…
Intern Jason Ranck joined Yards Brewer Franklin Winslow and me for this project meeting. Jason is a graduate of the Brewers Guild in Vermont, has interned at Iron Hill, is now interning at Yards and sometimes Neshaminy Creek Brewing. He currently helps out Franklin in the lab at Yards.
Our plan for the night was to identify and sample our beginning resources – various soured beers already at our disposal at the brewery. We needed to find out if we could use them as our starting source beers for the Spontaneous Generation Project.
Our first resource was 7 sixtels of Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale sour mash first running that was aged in a Woodford Reserve bourbon barrel (marked #19) from sometime in 2010 until March 2013. This batch we call “Alpha TJ” and it was pitched with some Berliner Weiss yeast, and partially fermented in the barrel. We knew that it has deposited it’s “mysterious bugs” (bacteria) in the barrel, but the beer hadn’t been tasted since it was racked into sixtels almost a year ago.
The first barrel that was actually in use was #19, and was the Woodford Reserve barrel emptied of the “Alpha TJ”, and since then it has housed Brawler Ale. After about a year in the barrel that Brawler should have gained the character and flavors of the Alpha TJ’s bugs and the barrel’s wood.
There are also two other Woodford Reserve barrels that have TJ in them, and it was not clear if they are still working, useful or taste like anything but vinegar. One was dosed with Brettanomyces claussenii, the other with Lactobacillus. The most recent date written on the barrel was 12/31/11 but Franklin explained that was when they had been last filled with George Washington Porter for another project. They had been filled with TJ in 2012 sometime.
We took the three siphons I bought from the John Reynolds’ home brew store in Havertown, and Frank added a fourth. We dumped them and a couple of new wooden barrel bungs into some sanitizer, grabbed a screw driver and mallet for opening up barrel #20, (as it was sealed) and went to the barrels. They were on a rack that was in a strange corner of the brewery, amongst shrink wrapped kegs and other stuff in storage. Franklin had to climb up to the top of the racks to get at the airlocks for pulling the samples. We brought some cups with us, and got started.
From #19 Franklin pulled a few ounces of the soured Brawler for each of us, and we remarked on it’s clarity. It tasted pretty good from the first – sour, though not tart, with a dry finish. Franklin and Jason were quite pleased, and remarked that they would drink it as is. I found the mouthfeel and body to be lacking as well as the tart characteristic I was looking for, but Frank explained that was to be expected. We agreed that it could use some more acidity, to add some more tartness.
Next was #18, and this soured TJ made my head snap back from it’s blast of sourness. The bourbon and wood flavor was definitely in there somewhere as well. Franklin and Jason weren’t so shocked, and thought it was interesting. I exclaimed that I couldn’t see how that flavor could be good for much, but later on reflection I could see how it’s tannins and woodiness might be useful to blend with (or against).
Finally – barrel #20 was opened. Franklin gingerly pried out the old bung, careful to not let pieces of it fall into the barrel. He pulled a sample, and the smell of green apples and solvent was oppressive. Frank explained that the barrel was bad because no bacteria had survived the inoculation process. Oxygen in the barrel oxidized the alcohol backwards into the precursor acetaldehyde. There was no microbiological activity in the barrel to consume the Oxygen, so it just ruined the beer. That’s why we have to start over with #20 – there are no bugs to be found in that barrel.
We finally took a sample from one of the sixtels with the soured “Alpha TJ”. There was absolutely no noticeable carbonation, in fact Frank had to hold the sixtel upside down to get out the sample. Again – from that barrel #19 the beer tasted pretty good. It reminded me of the rye cask conditioned belgian from Upstream Brewing I tried this fall and the “Old Guardian” cask aged in bourbon barrels that I sampled when I visited Stone this summer. Flavors included vanilla, butterscotch, tobacco? leather? Definite sourness detectable. Viscous, notable mouthfeel. Looked dark brown and cloudy.
I had to admit that I was a bit overwhelmed with the flavors that came out of all these barrels and not so sure how they would be components of the final desired soured brew flavors. It was difficult for me to understand them as pieces that would eventually come together.
We went back to the lab and discussed each barrel and what we’d like to do with them (and the beer within). Franklin reminded me that he as much concerned about the barrels themselves as the beer inside. He wanted to establish a good colony of “bugs” in them, for propagation in beers to sour in the future.
Frank and I decided to rack off the one sixtel of the soured Brawler from #19, and carbonate it along with one of the TJ Alpha (sixtel #1). Frank suggested that further carbonation would be required, possibly a couple of more times.
Afterward we cleaned up, sanitized the equipment and I had a shot of Dad’s hat bourbon. This session was over. Next time we will confirm our plans for how we want to treat each barrel and start the process. Ideas include adding wild yeast to some, fruit to others and possibly some blending. Stay tuned for update #2.