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Making Barrel-aged Beer at Weyerbacher Brewing

We have an article in the latest issue, Summer 2015, titled “Big Beer, Whiskey Chaser,” about the popular practice of aging beers in bourbon barrels. We talked to a number of the foremost brewers of such beers, like Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Todd Ashman of Fifty/Fifty and Eclipse, Matthew Brynildsson of Firestone Walker, and Chris Wilson of Weyerbacher.

I decided it would be cool to get some video to go with the piece, and Weyerbacher is just over the hill from our offices — okay, over about five hills, but who’s counting! — so one morning I went up there and shot some video. It happened to be their 20th anniversary year, which is interesting for me: John Hansell introduced me to Dan Weirback, the brewery founder, all the way back in 1995. I’ve known Dan ever since, interviewed him numerous times, drove up to Albany with him one time to do an event together…and sure enough, wound up standing at the brewery’s tasting room bar with him this morning, sampling Sunday Morning Stout (SMS), the barrel-aged beer I’d come to get a closer look at. It’s a coffee beer, great stuff for 10 AM!

They were disgorging barrels of SMS that morning, and I took some fairly mundane video of that, but the audio is interesting. It’s brewery production manager Chris Lampe explaining what type of beer SMS is, and how they take one last step to make sure they don’t get a sour barrel into the blend. Have a look and listen; warning, it’s kind of loud, we were shouting over the noise of the bottling line, right beside us.

After that, I went back to the lab. Weyerbacher was the only brewery I talked to for the story that was of the opinion that barrel-aged beers had to be watched carefully to prevent an infection that would create sour beer. Sour beers are a quite popular niche right now, and Weyerbacher makes some very good ones, like Riserva, and their new session beer, Tarte Nouveau. But they do NOT want beers like SMS going sour; they’re in wood for the rich character that bourbon-soaked oak can give. The other breweries said that a variety of natural defenses kept the beer from going sour. Weyerbacher, it turns out, had experience of a barrel going sour, and with the cost of the beer and the barrel, decided that wasn’t going to happen again.

Chris Reilly, their quality assurance/quality control manager and lab manager (and, full disclosure, my former neighbor who used to drop by with brewery and homebrewing samples!), told me about the process and equipment they were field-testing for a Philadelphia company that did fast analysis of beer spoilage precursors to stop infections in their tracks. Kinda geeky, but kinda cool; and nowhere near as noisy!

If you’d like to see more of this added detail in the future — if we have it to provide — let us know in the comments. Thanks!

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