Dawn of the oak age: Local wineries and breweries collaborate on barrel programs

LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL: The rickhouse at Catawba Brewing Co.’s South Slope facility offers needed space for the brewery's barrel-aging program. Pictured is Shelton Steele, left, Catawba's director of commercial operations, with owner Billy Pyatt. Photo by Matthew Spaulding

This is the first in a two-part series on the use of barrels in the Asheville-area beer industry.

Brewers in Northern Europe have been aging their beers in oak barrels for centuries, from traditional Belgian lambics to the first IPAs that made the long journey from England around the horn of Africa. American craft brewers began to modify these time-honored techniques in the late 20th century, using repurposed wine and spirits barrels to impart unique flavor profiles to small-batch ales and lagers.

Western North Carolina beers are no stranger to oak, as evinced in the recent proliferation of barrel-aging programs in area breweries, where innovation continues to thrive.

Traditions of reuse

Founded 30 years ago, the Biltmore Wine Co. has always maintained the standards of sustainability and community integration established by George W. Vanderbilt when he began construction on the Biltmore Estate in the late 1800s. To that end, Biltmore Wine barrels have found a new home after retirement, with secondary uses ranging from furniture to garden and landscape installations.

But with the emergence of Asheville’s burgeoning craft brewing community, the company found a creative way to repurpose its barrels in accordance with Vanderbilt’s vision of a self-sustaining farm. “Recycling wine barrels through reuse within the local community fits within that model,” says Biltmore public relations manager Marissa Jamison. “Craft beer has become a huge industry in the Asheville area, and Biltmore is glad to be a partner in the beverage community.”

Biltmore has contributed barrels to local breweries such as Wicked Weed Brewing, Burial Beer Co., Highland Brewing Co.Oscar Blues Brewery and Catawba Brewing Co. While Biltmore is not in the business of selling its barrels, strong relationships with area breweries have resulted in the occasional and informal passing-on of retired barrels when limited supplies allow and have also led to exciting opportunities for collaboration.

Last year Biltmore worked with Wicked Weed on Succession, a golden sour ale brewed with Biltmore riesling grape must and yeast and aged for nine months in Biltmore white-wine barrels. The success of Succession is a positive indicator of the mutually beneficial relationships being forged between Asheville’s craft beverage leaders, and it all started with barrels.

The Banks Avenue rickhouse

Catawba Brewing Co. is known for its wide selection of predominantly traditional beer styles available on draft and in cans throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Take one step into its Banks Avenue tasting room, and it’s clear that the brewery is also serious about barrels.

“It’s our rickhouse,” says owner Billy Pyatt. “You’ll see [barrels] stuck on every wall that we can find space.”

Catawba has been experimenting with barrel-aged beers since 2000. At that time, the fledgling brewery couldn’t afford big stainless steel storage tanks or kegs, so co-owner Scott Pyatt found an inexpensive source for Jack Daniels barrels and used them to store production beer until kegs were available to package the product. “The result, of course, was wonderful. Moreover, it started us on our path into all kinds of barrel beers,” Billy says.

Scott passed his experience making such beers as Whiskey River IPA to director of brewing operations Kevin Sondey, who currently handles each aspect of the barrel program. Duties include procuring barrels, pulling samples and tasting and blending beers aged for different lengths of time.

The recent completion of a major expansion at Catawba’s Morganton brewery affords Sondey an opportunity to focus more on the barrel program. He’d been so occupied with other day-to-day responsibilities that a large stock of barrels — many sourced from Smooth Ambler Spirits in West Virginia — dried out to a nearly unusable state. But soaking the wood with hot water saved them and ensured that they could be sealed.

The Catawba crew finds that malty beers age better than others in oak barrels, especially Hooligan Scotch Ale. Additional success stories include sour saisons, White Zombie White Ale in gin barrels and a 14.5 percent ABV Belgian-style quad aged in Biltmore cabernet barrels for five years. Director of commercial operations Shelton Steele notes that the limited quantity of these creations has meant turning down customer requests for growler fills, but Catawba is working toward offering the beers in specialty bottles.

In the near future, Sondey plans to age a new imperial-strength Rediculous Red IPA (10 percent ABV) in bourbon barrels and has already paired Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale, an admittedly unlikely barrel beer, with Brettanomyces yeast, the results of which will be available to try in a few months. Aiding those creative efforts is the supportive Asheville Brewers Alliance — an invaluable network for buying and selling excess barrels on the local level — and the growth of the craft spirit industry, which, Sondey says, will keep brewers supplied with interesting barrels.

The increased demand has also sparked a regional interest in cooperage — which Banks Avenue tasting manager Jared Turbyfill calls “a bit of a lost art” — as evidenced through Scott’s contact with a new barrel maker in Marion.

Big beers from a small space

Local craft-brew drinkers who have stumbled onto casks pouring Oyster House Brewing Co.’s acclaimed Bourbon Supermoon Imperial Oyster Stout or Islay Watchstone Scotch Ale might find themselves confronted with a conundrum: Where do they keep the barrels in such a small brewery?

The answer is, they don’t. Oyster House ages its beers on oak spirals, cubes and chips soaked in a variety of spirits rather than in second-use barrels.

This process has proved advantageous in ways beyond producing oaked beers in very tight quarters by allowing for innovation. “I like some old standards, but the exciting beer, for me, is the experimental stuff,” says assistant brewer Philip Shepard. “Oak adds a depth and character to beer that you can’t get any other way. And oak that has picked up the flavors of some of the world’s best whiskey, well, how can that be anything but good?”

Shepard adds that a variety of interesting new experiments on oak will be available in the near future, teasing the possibility of a Kahlua variant of Supermoon. With connections to several distilleries in Scotland, Shepard suggests that Oyster House will eventually take the plunge into barrels, with one qualification: “We just need to figure out where the hell we can put them.”

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About Scott Douglas and Edwin Arnaudin

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