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Molly Browning & Garrett Oliver Talk Bourbon, Barrels & Bottles

It’s not easy to forget that actual brewing is happening all around our Williamsburg office – the streets outside smell like malt in the mornings, and I’ve gotten yelled at for inappropriate brewhouse footwear more than once. But when I’m neck deep in tweets or hunting down a folk band in Miami to play for our Slow Supper events, sometimes it’s out of sight, out of mind. The same goes for our new, recently-opened barrel aging facility.  Since no one wants to be out of touch with the intricacies of brewing when you work at a brewery (and since I love barrel-aged beers), I talked to Molly Browning, our Barrel Program Manager (who has previously worked at Jolly Pumpkin & oversaw the wood and sour program at New Holland) and Garrett Oliver, our Brewmaster, about what exactly is happening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Caitlin: So, why are we putting beer in barrels in the first place? 

Garrett: There are a few things a brewer might want from a barrel: wood flavors, which range from vanilla-like to toasty to floral, flavors of the previous “tenant” of the barrel – for example, we aged a beer in a mezcal barrel and got an amazing smoky, fruity mezcal flavor in the beer – slow, controlled oxidation through the pores in the wood, which can bring on some pleasant flavors, or the effects of micro-organisms harbored in the wood.

Molly: The barrel provides an ‘active’ environment for the beer. Air seeps through the barrel, allowing for a micro-oxygenation effect, similar to wine aging. The toasting or char level of the wood also gives flavor and aroma to the beer being aged in it. Different types of wood impart their different flavors and aromas. Then you have whatever spirit or wine was aged in the barrel previously on top of that.

Garrett: A brewer may only want one of these effects, or any combination of them.

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What makes a good barrel aged beer?

Garrett: A great barrel aged beer is not a gilded lily. There should be something about the barrel character that actually completes the beer. Then again, I’ve had great barrel-aged versions of beers that were already very good in their regular form, so you never know.

Molly: I would say a good barrel aged beer is a clean beer. You should not get any off flavors that are overwhelming in the beer. If it is a sour beer, some level of acidity is good. If it is a non-sour, spirit-aged beer, you ideally would want to see an oaky presence along with whatever lingering spirit character remains in the barrel in the beer. Overall, the barrel should add a balance to the beer, and it should not be used to fix a flawed beer.

What about barrel aging is so exciting for you?

Molly: There are a lot of variables and unknowns the occur in the barrel that can influence the beer and can result in a completely different beer from the original – or even from barrel to barrel of the same beer. Much of the time, depending on the barrel, you can get consistent results (for things like Black Ops and a lot of the spirit barrel-aged beers), but that’s not always the case.

Garrett:  A lot of people think of barrel aging as something new for beer, as if we’d “borrowed” the idea from wine. But all of the major beer books from the 1800s have chapters on aging beer in oak barrels; we’re just reclaiming our heritage, which is definitely fun.

Selfie at our barrel house, The Brooklyn Navy Yard. #brooklynbrewery #barrels #beer

A photo posted by Garrett Oliver (@igarrettoliver) on

For a while, it seemed that the prevailing medium for aging was bourbon barrels, but that seems to be shifting now. What’s the new frontier for aging? 

Garrett: Bourbon barrels used to be plentiful and cheap, and they are quickly becoming rare and expensive. This is partly because of the renaissance of the spirit and cocktail culture, and partly because of the increased wealth of developing countries like China and India. Those countries make much more whiskey than we do, and they want their whiskey to be good. That means barrels. It’s getting tough out there. Fortunately, there are many other sorts of barrels to play with.

Molly: Bourbon is still going to be key for a while, but you’ll start to see a shift towards other spirits, namely tequila, brandy, cognac – anything unusual. Wine barrels are also going to become big and, I think, play a bigger part in the spirit-aging side of the industry than before. We have some unusual spirit barrels currently at Brooklyn. We have Angostura rum, and we also have some mezcal – I’m hoping to get more –  plus cognac and soon some sherry, Muscat, and sauternes.

Do you use different barrels differently?

Molly: We typically use the bourbon and rum barrels only once. The flavors will change over time, and those barrels that we have used once or twice may still be good as sour barrels. Wine barrels, cognac and mezcal we will use more than once.

Garrett: The boldest flavor comes from our first use of a barrel, but we don’t always want a big barrel flavor – it depends on the beer and the barrel. We may use a barrel once to get a bold flavor, and then a second time for a more subtle effect. Even after two uses, a barrel isn’t necessarily exhausted – we can use them for aging of sour beers in particular. In rum production, a barrel may be used several times before we get it. And we got a great mezcal barrel once that had held Stag’s Leap – a trophy Cabernet from California – even before it held mezcal. So there can be layers upon layers.

Previous barrel aging projects have worked with pre-existing beers in the BK lineup. Can you foresee any beers being brewed especially for barrel aging?

Garrett: Absolutely, and Molly is working on things that I don’t even know about yet! We’ve already started developing barrel-only beers, such as the recently released barley wine, Hand & Seal. And actually our first barrel-aged beer was Black Ops, and that’s brewed specifically for barrels. Some people assume that Black Ops is basically a barrel-aged version of our Black Chocolate Stout, but the beers are actually very different from the outset.

Molly: Yes, we are currently working on those. The BQE program is designed for just that purpose. Kriek, Quadraceratops, Hand and Seal, were all made for barrels. We are also going to start expanding our sour program.

Run barrel delivery

A photo posted by Molly Browning (@meabrowning) on

How much extra space does the Navy Yard location afford to the brewery? How much extra beer does that translate to? 

Molly: The Navy Yard will allow us to store around 1600 – 2000 barrels at a time. You are looking around 2,6800 bbl for the brewery. We have started to see it already this past year with the launch of the BQE program. It has gotten off to a great start this year.

Garrett:. I’d love to see a day when the barrel room was absolutely full, though that state might only last for weeks or even just days.

Will these be widely available beers, or is it more of a special projects/r&d division? What’s going on across the street?

Garrett: I think it depends on what you mean by “widely available”. Barrels take up a lot of space, and each barrel only holds about 19 cases of beer. If you do the math, you can see that you need hundreds of barrels to get only a few thousand cases. And a few thousand cases sounds like a lot of beer, but this is a big country, and our beers are also in 25 other countries. The beer gets spread pretty thin very quickly.

I could see the possibility that we’d have some beers – certain types of sours, perhaps – that were aged in barrels for weeks rather than months. In that case, perhaps a beer might become more available. But there’s really no way of avoiding the work – every barrel is filled and emptied by hand. And every bottle is filled by hand as well. It’s a huge amount of work.

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Why now? Is the new barrel room a product of more interest & demand for barrel aged beer? Or is it to give the brewers more room to stretch?

Molly: There is a huge demand for these beers, which seems to keep getting bigger. Brooklyn is stepping into barrel aging as a leader in this industry, as it has been a leader in other aspects of the brewing world for a long time.

Garrett: Our interest in barrel-aging pre-dates the demand for it, but in previous years we couldn’t find the space, and frankly we probably didn’t have the money or the knowledge to handle it. The barrel work was essentially my personal playground, aside from the Black Ops production. Now we have Molly and her pretty vast barrel experience to help us expand on both our ideas and our ability to carry them out. It’s funny to think about it this way, but in many ways our beer is more “artisanal” and “handmade” than it used to be. I really like that. It almost feels like we’re slowly turning into a “truer” version of ourselves.

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