This page describes the nitty gritty details of how the Newfermenters Barrel Project works. How do we create the beer, how do we get it into the barrels, how do we monitor it while it’s in the barrels, and how do we get it out of the barrels.
The goal of this project is for a group of 10-12 homebrewers to each brew a 5 US gallon batch of beer following a common recipe, store the beer in bulk in a full sized oak barrel for an amount of time (6-18 months?), and return a portion of mature aged beer to each participant.
Each barrel is allocated into a number of slots as close as possible to the total volume of the barrel divided into 5 US gallon increments. So for example, a 200L barrel contains ~10.5 5 gallon batches, so 11 brewers contribute to these barrels. A 225L barrel contains ~11.8 5 gallon batches, so 12 brewers contribute to these barrels.
Note that while all participants brew the same recipe for batches going into the same barrel, it is not critical that all the beers be exactly the same, or even taste exactly the same. This is a collaborative process and as long as the beers are all similar-ish the end product will be OK. If a brewer needs to scale a recipe to fit their system, or tailor a recipe to meet specific known efficiency that they know their system will produce, as long as all the beers are in the same general ballpark everything will work out OK in the end.
All recipes that are published for the barrel aged beers will have been standardized to the following assumptions:
- Reduced brewhouse efficiency based on OG of the recipe.
- ~1.070 75%
- ~1.080 70%
- ~1.090 65%
- ~1.100 60%
- Batch Size: 6 US Gallons (23L) post-boil
- This allows for some volume loss when transferring from kettle to fermenter and from fermenter to keg/barrel, plus pull a few hydrometer samples along the way, and ensure a full 5 gallons are available to put into the barrel at the end.
A big part of all grain brewing is converting starches to sugars in the mash and then extracting those sugars from the grain bed into your wort to create beer. Efficiency is a measure of how much of the total available sugar you’re able to get out of the grain and into your beer.
Many of the barrel aged beers will tend to be bigger, stronger beers: higher ABV, higher OG, bigger grain bills. With a bigger grain bill, you’re likely to get a lower than “normal” extraction efficiency simply because the volume of water required to produce the correct pre-boil volume isn’t enough to completely wash out all the available sugars from your grain bed. See below for a separate discussion on parti-gyle brewing which can help to extract those sugars to create a small ‘second runnings’ beer.
When brewing a big beer it’s critical to pitch a sufficient amount of healthy yeast to ensure a complete fermentation with no undesirable off flavours. Each recipe will call for specific practices depending on the yeast in question, but generally speaking liquid yeasts will probably require a multi-stage starter, and dry yeasts will likely call for pitching multiple packs of yeast.
Fermentation & Barrels
It is important to make sure primary fermentation is complete before the beer is added to the barrels. If fermentation is not complete, it could kick off again inside the barrel. This could lead to excess yeast cells building up in the barrel, and because the beer will age in the barrels for a long time, it is possible that off flavours (autolysis) could develop from the beer sitting too long on dead or otherwise unhealthy yeast cells. Refermentation in the barrel also has the potential to cause a sticky mess on Bill’s floor.
We recommend using a hydrometer or refractometer to take measurements a couple days apart at the end of fermentation and confirm that the final gravity has been reached and is the gravity is no longer changing.
Despite wanting to avoid excess yeast in the barrels, it is not recommended to use gelatin or other post-fermentation finings to clear the beer before the it is added to the barrels. Fining agents can contribute negatively during the aging process as it is typically quite long and anything added to the barrels is effectively in the barrels forever after that point. Using Whirlfloc or Irish Moss during your boil is OK if that’s part of your typical brew day process.
It is also OK to cold crash your beer to help encourage precipitation of yeast if you have that ability in your fermentation process.
As described above, you may expect to have a lower than normal sugar extraction efficiency when brewing large beers. Because this means there are still sugars left in your grain bed, you can be take advantage and collect a second smaller beer from the same grains as the larger beer being produced for the barrels.
This is called parti-gyle brewing and it’s a big complicated topic that won’t be covered here. The basic process is that after collecting your main beer from the grain, you can add more water and extract a second beer from the same grain. If you’d like to read more about it, here’s a good article on Beer & Brewing about it.
There is no requirement to collect a second runnings beer to participate in the barrel project!!!
The second runnings beer is just something you can do to get better use of your grain and get a second beer for yourself for ‘free’. Some of the Newfermenters members have done this in the past and would be happy to help out with any experience they might be able to offer. Reach out in the Facebook group if you’d like to talk to someone.
When the time comes to fill the barrels, we ask that contributors drop their beer off in a corny keg for ease of handling and moving the beer around. If you don’t have a keg, let one of the organizers know, there are usually extra kegs available that can be loaned to help transport beer.
Each batch of beer is blindly sampled to ensure no substantial off flavours are present before going into the barrel.
The barrel is flushed with CO2 to push out as much oxygen as possible and the kegs are transferred one at a time into the barrel. Once the barrel is filled, the bung is inserted and an airlock applied.
Each barrel is sampled periodically during aging. Typically, at least 2 or 3 people will taste at each tasting, efforts will be made such that anyone who is interested in attending a tasting can drop by and see what it’s like, although tastings will not typically be deferred until everyone can attend, otherwise they’d never happen.
Typical tasting schedule can be anywhere from once a month to once every 3 months depending on the status of the beer being aged. Individual tasting schedules will be communicated to participants in each barrel as they happen.
Each barrel has a small hole in the head plugged up with a stainless steel nail to allow for quickly pulling a small sample. (1-2oz per person attending.)
Tasting is mostly subjective, although generally speaking tasters are typically evaluating the intensity of flavours imparted by the oak, as well as from spirits or other previous barrel contents to decide whether these flavours are prominent enough relative to the base beer. Tasters are also looking out for any off flavours and any indications of infection whether positive or not.
Once the beer aging in a barrel has been deemed ‘ready’ for packaging a date will be picked when the beer will be taken out. Each participant should drop off an empty, sanitized keg to the barrel storage location prior to that date. Again, participants in need of a loaner keg should reach out to the organizers to make arrangements.
Each keg is put on a weight scale and the scale is zeroed out. Beer is filled to a predetermined level in each keg which is slightly less than the total expected volume of the barrel. For example, a 225L barrel with 12 shares expects a maximum return to each participant of 18.75L. However, due to sediment, absorption by the wood, and evaporation, it is unlikely that the full 225L can be removed from the barrel. Therefore, in the first round, each keg may be filled to a weight corresponding to 17L of beer for example. Once all kegs have been filled to the basic first pass amount, the remaining beer in the barrel is divvied up between kegs by weight a small amount at a time until it runs out. All efforts will be made to ensure each participant receives an equal share of the barrel aged beer.
For second fills and beyond the barrel empty date will coincide with the fill date for the next beer to be aged in the barrel. While it is possible to clean a barrel and prepare it for storage, there is always at least some risk that while sitting empty the barrel could pick up an infection from wild yeast or bacteria. Filling promptly after emptying minimizes this risk and helps us to keep control of what bugs are introduced into the barrels.
Barrel aged beers can be packaged the same as any beer. However, if you plan to bottle condition your beer, it is recommended to pitch a small amount of additional yeast along with your priming sugar as the original yeast may not be particularly viable after sitting dormant for such long periods.
There is a specialty yeast available from Lallemand for this specific purpose, CBC-1: Cask & Bottle Conditioning Yeast. Typical dosage is 2g / 5 US gallons. This is typically ordered near the end of each barrel aging stint and shared among participants in a way that’s organized per barrel at the time it’s required. Ordering details will be communicated to participants as required.