Exciting and delicious as they can be, barrel-aged beers aren’t feasible for every brewery. The process takes time, patience and additional resources and space on top of a business’s regular production needs. Despite these extra requirements, the Asheville area’s first brewery and one of its newest craft makers have added barrel-aged programs and are starting to enjoy their first results.
On Highland Brewing Co.’s staff page, each team member is asked to compare themselves to a beer brand or style. Trace Redmond responded with, “Barrel-aged Scotch ale. Super awesome with a kick at the end.” So it’s fitting that when he was promoted to the role of research and development brewer in November 2017, part of the position was to establish a barrel program for Asheville’s longest-running brewery.
The new sector is one component of Highland’s overall rebrand that went into effect in February and part of a larger effort within the company to expand its beer offerings. Highland has tinkered with barrel aging before, but not in Redmond’s three years with the brewery and not as a dedicated focus.
“For us, clean barrel-aged beers make the most sense,” Redmond says. “It sounds silly to call something ‘traditional’ with bourbon-barrel aging, because it’s a relatively recent trend if you think about the history of beer, but I guess you could say that’s a more ‘traditional’ approach than, say, sour beer.”
Highland receives barrels from a broker in Kentucky that are so fresh they’re still wet with whiskey at the bottom. Redmond notes it’s important to fill them quickly — within a week — to get the best possible flavors. He has experience working with barrels at Founders Brewing Co. and Roak Brewing Co. in Michigan, and is attracted to the transformative elements of the process.
“I’m a big believer in making beer that is designed for barrels,” Redmond says. “That means that the beer you put into barrels might not taste balanced or good — maybe it’s too bitter or too sweet. It’s almost like you’re adding two ingredients to the beer: the wood flavor and everything, and then time.”
The first release from Highland’s barrel program was Negroni IPA, which hit the taproom July 13. The 8.7 percent ABV IPA was aged in gin barrels and, because of the base beer’s conducive nature, was the first of the barrels filled in November to finish aging. According to a Highland press release, the beer “re-creates the bitterness of a negroni along with the flavors of a fresh orange garnish.”
For Valentine’s Day, Highland crafted a stout inspired by French Broad Chocolate’s London Fog truffle, made with Earl Grey tea. The beer is currently aging in bourbon barrels and, because it has a lower ABV, Redmond expects it to be one of the program’s next offerings. Future releases include a Scotch ale, a Belgian-style quad, multiple imperial stouts and a Belgian-style tripel that will be aged in red-wine barrels.
The barrels are stored in a refrigerated room built solely for aging. Like an ideal wine cellar, it’s kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and the beers will sit there for eight to 18 months, making many of them ready for release in 2019 to coincide with Highland’s 25th anniversary.
“We’re starting really small, so everything, for the most part, so far, has been coming out of the pilot room. [The brewers will] be doing 3 to 4 barrels apiece with a real focus on recipe development and experimentation to try and find something that works that would be scalable for a larger release and packaging in the future,” Redmond says.
“We’re trying to move slow and do a bunch of different small stuff and see which one works,” he adds. “We’re very much in the research and development phase of the program, which is really fun, instead of committing to something and diving in to it.”
Barrels at Beacham’s Curve
Archetype Brewing started making beer in June 2017. By August, eight red-wine barrels, eight white-wine barrels and four 500-liter puncheons had been brought in and promptly filled to set in motion the fledgling company’s barrel program.
Steven Anan, Archetype co-founder and head brewer, previously had minimal experience with barrels besides intermittently cleaning and filling them while working at Hi-Wire Brewing, but quickly took to the new additions.
“Starting Archetype gave me the opportunity to start playing around with flavor profiles and ingredient expression from barrel aging,” he says. “I would say cellaring and yeast handling are my strong points, so adding in barrel work was a natural progression, and a lot of my knowledge base was thankfully relevant.”
Archetype customers have so far been able to sample one turn of Devil’s Nest Mixed-Culture Barrel-Aged Tripel, which went through four of the white-wine barrels; two different renditions of Walk the Earth, a barrel-aged brett saison that came out of two puncheons; and one turn of Emotional Entanglement, a barrel-aged brett saison with guava, from the other two puncheons.
Going forward, Anan says the plan is to follow that formula, with half of the puncheons dedicated to the Walk the Earth series with a different “clean, unfruited, not soured, mixed-culture, barrel-aged saison” available throughout the year. The other half will likely favor seasonal fruited barrel-aged Brett saisons, the second round of which should be available in mid-to-late September and will feature 1½ pounds per gallon of local peaches.
Besides producing Devil’s Nest, which Anan aims to have readily available at the taproom, the wine barrels will be open to experimentation. Two currently house a Belgian red ale, which has been aging for nearly a year, while others are filled with blonde ale stock and various saison recipes. Some barrels will be used primarily for blending, while others have been tasted and are of high enough quality that they may be single-barrel releases.
“Most of these down the road should be partially packaged and sold in bottle-conditioned, 375 [milliliter] format,” Anan says. “We wanted to make it more accessible to a wider range of people from a price-point perspective — 750 milliliter bottles, typically, the price point is kind of high. You look at that and go, ‘I could have a beer that’s been aged for six months or wine that’s four years old and spend pretty much the same amount.’ From what I’ve seen, you’re attracting a similar crowd with those types of products.”
The first packaged product might be the aforementioned peach saison, which will sit for four to six weeks on the fruit. Anan anticipates bottling 50 to 75 percent of the volume, kegging the rest and likely only selling it in-house. He also hopes to bottle round two of Devil’s Nest by the end of the year and potentially some of the Belgian red, which he calls “one of those beers that’s too good to just keg. It would kind of be doing it a disservice.” And looking further ahead, if Archetype were to expand, he anticipates it would “be pretty much 100 percent oak” along with foeders and other related developments.
“We’d probably start integrating a lambic program, so we would have some variance of aged lambics in wood at any given point,” Anan says.