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The Explosion of Craft Beer in St. Louis

The Explosion of Craft Beer in St. Louis

In a city that's literally run by well, Budweiser, the growth of craft breweries in St. Louis, Mo., is outstanding. KSDK5 recently found that of the 24 craft breweries in town, four opened in just the last year — and many anticipate that number to climb. "I wouldn't be surprised if another 20 craft breweries opened after us," said head brewer Beamer Eisele of the brand new Modern Brewery said to KSDK5.

Today, Eisele notes, more St. Louis residents are looking for craft beer options, and there are plenty abound. We love KDSK5's map of craft breweries in the area; and we're excited to see more open up. Here are the ones we're loving:

Scratch Beer

The farmhouse brewery and restaurant was started by three award-winning southern Illinois home brewer, who show a true dedication to using local (ad even foraged) ingredients in their brews. That includes an ESB (Extra Special Biter), a Spring Session ale, a Lemongras Saison, and a Kombucha Wit beer.

Morgan Street Brewery

The brewery/restaurant makes just about 1,400 barrels per year of its lineup, including a Honey Wheat Lager and its Golden Pilsner, which won the World Beer Cup Championship in 2010. It's most certainly a hometown favorite.

The Civil Life Brewing Company

The up-and-coming brewery can be found in restaurants around St. Louis; look for the Dry Hop "Bling" Ale, IPA, and Rye Pale Ale.

Kirkwood Station Brewing Company

In Kirkwood, Mo., the four-year old Kirkwood Station Brewing Company has an unusual lineup of beers (like a blackberry wheat and a Sugar Creek Lager) in addition to the standard IPA, Belgian Witte, and Porter beers.

Perennial Artisan Ales

A newcomer to the scene, Perennial is bringing some more unique styles to St. Louis: a Belgian Dark, a Homefront IPA, and more.

Schlafly is by far the biggest and most well-known craft brewery in St. Louis. Schlafly opened its doors in 1991 and now has two locations in the St. Louis area. Each year, Schlafly brews more than 50 kinds of beer. About half of those can be found on draft at the Schlafly's restaurant-brew pubs: The Tap Room and Bottleworks. Many other Schlafly beers including the Pale Ale, Hefeweizen and Oatmeal Stout are easily found at hundreds of restaurants and stores throughout the area. Schlafly is also known for its seasonal brews with the Pumpkin Ale, Oktoberfest and Summer Lager among the biggest sellers.

The Explosion of Craft Beer in St. Louis - Recipes

By Maureen Zegel

Tom Behnen has been selling beer in St. Louis for more than a decade. He talks beer history in compressed archeological terms to describe the craft beer movement. Layer upon layer, new beers arrived in the St. Louis market, he says, and the beer-drinking public responded with enthusiasm.

“You can see the evolution of St. Louis’ taste buds in beer, says Behnen, director of operations for Llywelyn’s Pub’s six locations. Llywelyn’s opened in 1975 in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. Behnen has been with them since 2006.

“Given Llywelyn’s Celtic heritage and food, we used to sell a lot of imported beers. Then Schlafly came along (1991) and we made a commitment to them. Then O’Fallon Brewery opened (2000) followed by a whole lot of other local breweries. Four years ago we started getting Colorado beers, East and West Coast beers – all really good, really different beers. They were savory and thick and went well with our food.”

Llywelyn’s Pub in Webster Groves has 44 taps serving up a variety of draft beers at any given time. It’s bottle beer choices number in the hundreds. Its five other locations (Central West End, Soulard, St. Charles, O’Fallon and Wildwood) all offer similar selections.

“Craft beer is so diverse, it can be paired with anything. There really are no restrictions any more,” says Behnen. “Because we make a concerted effort to use locally grown and raised produce and meats, our local craft beers are a natural.”

Jen Whitney, general manager of Llywelyn’s Webster Groves site, says she’s especially impressed with the collaborative spirit of people involved in craft beer.

“The breweries, the brew pubs are not trying to take the other guy out,” she says. “They’re not telling their customers, don’t drink that other beer. I wish we could have that in other industries.”

Across town, around the corner and 120 miles away from Llywelyn’s sit the four locations of International Tap House, iTap to those in the know. A beer emporium of sorts, its Soulard bar boasts nearly 500 bottled beers from 25 countries. More than 40 taps deliver draft beers, many of them local. None of the sites has a kitchen, so it’s a BYOF kind of place that encourages patrons to stop at their favorite eatery before their iTap visit. Or, you can order a pizza or sandwich from nearby restaurants and have it delivered.

Launched in 2009 by friends Sean Conroy and Brad Lobdell, the first iTap opened in Chesterfield. Sites in Soulard and the Central West End soon followed. Last year they opened a Columbia, Mo. bar, a stone’s throw from Mizzou and a seemingly never-ending flow of beer drinkers.

Sarah Scherer has been at iTap for three years, first as a server, then bartender and assistant general manager. She’s now taken on the enviable job of marketing an already successful idea.

“Once we added that fourth site I kept coming up with more marketing and event ideas until it was decided we needed a marketing person,” says Scherer. She calls them her “four babies.”

The summer bottle beer menu at the International Tap House in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood boasts nearly 500 beers from 25 countries. More than 40 taps deliver draft beers, many of them from nearby breweries. And as the number of choices increase for the consumer, the job of educating the public is up to the people who sell it.

Do you order a bottle of Afligem Tripel from Belgium, the Charleville Hoptimistic from Missouri or the Rogue Double Dead Guy from Oregon? You’ll have to try a draft beer – Schlafly Pale Ale, Urban Chestnut’s Schnickelfritz from St. Louis or Delirium Tremens from Belgium, which at 9 percent alcohol by volume, is appropriately named.

Don’t worry. The staff at both iTap and Llywelyn’s are experts, some of them nationally certified.

“Many people in the beer industry study for Cicerone Certification, a three-level education program for beer professionals that’s the equivalent of the wine industry’s sommelier,” says Scherer, who has attained the first level designation of Certified Beer Server. “It’s all done to elevate the beer experience for the consumer.”

Whether you’re a beer aficionado, novice or somewhere in between, you can learn a lot more and enjoy some of St. Louis’ finest beers during 2014 St. Louis Craft Beer Week. Breweries, distributors, restaurants, bars, retail outlets and beer fans all come together to celebrate craft beer. Talk to brewers, pair food and beers and meet other craft beer enthusiasts. Events run from Aug. 26 through Aug. 3 at various spots in the region.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 31st, 2014 at 2:02 am and is filed under August 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Cheers St. Louis! It’s been a good year for craft beer

There’s a craft beer explosion going on across the U.S., and St. Louis is no exception.

As part of our series “A Good Year,” St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra headed over to the Schlafly Tap Room to meet up with St. Louis Post-Dispatch beer columnist Evan Benn, and talk about our area’s craft beer boom.

BENN: So we’re drinking two craft beers – two cask beers from Schlafly. They’re Golden Optic Ale which was one of their 20 th anniversary series beers, and their dry-hopped APA which is one of their classic flagship styles.

LACAPRA: What makes a craft beer a craft beer? Can you define that? What would make a craft brewery, a craft brewery, as opposed to just a regular brewery?

BENN: Sure. Well, the Brewers Association which is a trade group based in Boulder, Colorado, that kind of represents craft brewers around the country, they define craft brewers as those that produce fewer than six million barrels of beer a year.

And a barrel of beer is basically a full keg. So what you’ll see at like your college keg party…that’s actually a half barrel. So we’re talking about a full barrel of beer. It’s 31 gallons.

So a craft brewery produces fewer than six million barrels of beer a year, they use traditional ingredients – no adjunct grains like corn or rice – and they’re independently owned.

LACAPRA: How was 2011 for the craft beer industry in St. Louis?

BENN: 2011 was an incredible year for craft beer in St. Louis. We just added our fourth craft brewery in the city, 4 Hands Brewing Company, and if you expand that to the county we had five breweries open this year, Exit 6 Brewery opened in Cottleville this summer.

So, a great year for new breweries opening, and also a great year for the breweries that already existed. And more than that, a ton of out-of-state breweries realized that St. Louis is a huge market for craft beer, so they started sending their beers here, and now we have more beers than ever available on our store shelves and at our bars.

LACAPRA: How many craft breweries do we have in St. Louis?

BENN: We have, I think at last count, 23 within a two-hour drive of downtown. That’s pretty incredible. And that’s definitely the most since prohibition.

LACAPRA: Yeah, what is it really that’s drawing craft breweries into a town like St. Louis? Which, you know, obviously Anheuser-Busch was the big player here for a really, really long time. How did craft breweries even get a foothold here?

BENN: Well, where we’re talking right now was kind of the start of it all. You know Schlafly turns 20 years old on Dec. 26, which is incredible, and they really ushered in this craft beer revolution to St. Louis when everyone thought you’d be crazy to sell anything but Budweiser here.

And then just in recent years, people have gotten more in tune with, you know, artisan craft products. They like that hand-made thing and they’re willing to pay a buck or two extra for that product.

And in the case of beer what they get is this flavorful, wonderful thing with so many different manipulations and flavor characteristics, I mean you can never – you really don’t have to drink the same beer twice in your life, if you don’t want to.

LACAPRA: Is it just that beer in general had a good year here? How did the big guy do, Anheuser-Busch?

BENN: Well, you know sales for the big breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, have been pretty flat for a few years, while sales of craft beer have grown by double digits. And that’s gone on nationwide.

So I think there’s in some way this perfect storm in St. Louis in terms of the InBev buy out of A-B in 2008, meeting with this national surge of craft beer. And I think it’s all just kind of hit us at the right time.

People are no longer feeling the loyalty they once had to A-B and they’re willing to try something new. And then we have all these craft breweries that are coming in to fill that void. So it’s a great time.

LACAPRA: If you had to sort of say what you think makes this such a great town for beer and for craft brewing in particular, what would it be?

BENN: I mean if you ask the brewers they might say it’s the water. But I don’t know, I just think St. Louis just kind of has this young culture that is coming up and is demanding better food, and better beer, and better wine lists and beer lists at restaurants, bars that are more proud of the beers they serve like iTap or like Handlebar.

Life Around STL

Sure, we cheer on the Cardinals and the Blues, and we ride the charming vintage tram up to the top of the Arch. But we also take in major museums, James Beard-winning restaurants and stunning parks and greenways.

We marvel at the largest and most complex archaeological site in North America in Cahokia Mounds, and revel at the world’s most outlandish playhouse at the City Museum. With nearly 50 universities and colleges along with a host of job training and vocational schools, you can learn just about anything here. We enjoy a shockingly low cost of living, pretty much every kind of housing you can imagine and a top-ranked healthcare system.

And also beer. St. Louis, of course, gave birth to Anheuser-Busch, and more than 165 years later, “the brewery” still stands as a community icon. But now the craft beer explosion has helped give St. Louis the best beer scene in America, according to USA Today.

But we’re far more than beer. As you’re about to see, the St. Louis region is lauded for placing among the nation’s best in a host of rankings. All of which is to say: St. Louis is a place you can start up, stand out and stay.

Kräftig, not craft beer: the new Busch brewery aiming to compete with Budweiser

If you've been driving on any of the highways around St. Louis lately you have probably noticed several new green billboards advertising Kräftig beer. Kräftig is brewed by the William K Busch Brewing Company, a new brewery started by Billy Busch, the great grandson of Adolphus Busch. As David Weinberg reports, Billy Busch is hoping his new business is start of the next chapter in the Busch family brewing legacy.

In 2008, when InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion it ended the nearly 150-year reign of the Busch family in the beer business. But Billy Busch, son of Augustus “Gussie” Busch, Jr. was not among the family members forced to sign a non-compete agreement in the takeover. After partnering with a St. Louis investor and hiring a seasoned management team that includes former Anheuser-Busch executives he founded the William K Busch Brewing Company.

"There hasn't been a new beer in the premium lager category for years and we've decided that if we're going to be a brewery let's go in the act of premium lager," Busch said. "So we decided to go big."

Ben Steinman, the editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, said that he's been at Beer Marketer's for 31 years and doesn't remember anything like this.

"It is very ambitious and well capitalized," Steinman said. "They are aiming right at the heart of the marketplace."

The William K Busch Brewing Company has made it very clear that they are not a micro-brewery. They intend to compete directly with lagers like Budweiser, Coors and Miller. They have already brewed more than 7,000 barrels of Kräftig and Kräftig Light, their flagship brands.

"We have a budget for 50,000 barrels and we hope to grow that to 200,000 to 300,000 in year five," Busch said.

The brews and their brewmaster

The recipes for Kräftig and Kräftig Light came form Germany but have been tweaked for the last two years by brewmaster Marc Gottfried. Gottfried is what you might call a beer brewing prodigy. He started making beer in his room at the age of 14. By 21 he was the full-fledged brewmaster of the Morgan Street Brewery at Laclede's Landing. Then, one day, out of the blue, he got a phone call from Billy Busch.

"I thought it was a prank call because nobody had my home number and the phone rings and it's like 'Mark, this is Billy Busch' and I pulled the phone away from my ear and I'm staring at it like 'is this for real?'," Gottfried said.

"We already had lined up the wonderful brewmasters in Germany to help us with the recipe and he jumped in on it," Busch said.

"The heritage that's in this town is what sparked me to become a brewer and to see the changes that took place over the last two years was heart wrenching for me," Gottfried said. "And for us to bring that back or just to take a shot at bringing that back is a chance at writing brewing history and it's an amazing feeling."

An informal taste test & local impact

One recent Monday night I stopped by Llywelyn's Pub in the Central West End, one of the bars in town that serves Kräftig and took an informal survey. Here were the responses:

Alec Hershman: "It was kind of like a spicier Budweiser. It was good."

Robert Whitehead: "Tastes like beer. Tastes like a beer that I would drink."

Jordan Jacks: "It's like a middling beer. I would drink it."

Weinberg: "Does it matter to you that this beer was brewed by a Busch?"

Jordan Jacks: "Uh, not really I wish it mattered to me but it doesn't."

Heather Overby: "Well normally when I think about St. Louis and beer I then think about the Belgians and I get sad (laughs). Belgians don't generally make me sad it's just this one situation."

Weinberg: "Does this counterbalance that?"

Overby: "Well, I am definitely excited about anything that brings jobs to St. Louis."

Kräftig is currently brewed under contract in La Crosse, Wisc. but the company hopes to break ground on a new brewing facility in St. Louis in the next year or two which could potentially bring hundreds of new jobs to the city. But in order for that to happen Busch says, sales have to grow outside the St. Louis region where it remains to be seen whether the rest of the country is thirsty for a new lager with the Busch name on it.

The Explosion of Craft Beer in St. Louis - Recipes

By Eric Hildebrandt // February 28, 2014

Whether referring to pre-Prohibition days when breweries dotted our local landscape or to the modern-day dominance of Anheuser-Busch, for more than 200 years, St. Louis has been in the business of beer. In the last decade – particularly the last five years – the state of St. Louis brewing has continued to evolve and transform thanks to the growing number of craft breweries and establishments that support them. Whether you’re new to drinking brew, in town for a visit or simply looking for a reason to throw back a few (dozen), here’s your guide to catching up on our burgeoning beer scene. All you need is a weekend – and a designated driver.

the civil life brewing co.’s rye pale ale // photo by jonathan gayman

3 p.m.
Sure, 33 Wine Bar (1913 Park Ave., St. Louis, 314.231.9463, specializes in wine, but with its six carefully selected draft choices, 150 different brews by the bottle and a cellar that houses everything from vintage Imperial stouts to funky, sour beers like Gueuze Tilquin, it’s easy to see why Beer Advocate consistently ranks 33 as one of the top beer destinations in the city.

6 p.m.

After you choose from 40 craft and import beers on tap or 500 by the bottle, you’ll understand why Draft Magazine has voted International Tap House in Soulard (1711 S. Ninth St., St. Louis, 314.621.4333, one of the best beer bars in the country. Add to that a knowledgeable and carefully trained staff, and you can see how owners Brad Lobdell and Sean Conroy have grown their business into four locations.

8:30 p.m.

Restaurateur Dave Bailey’s burger heaven Baileys’ Range (920 Olive St., St. Louis, 314.241.8121, is an ideal spot to grab a bite with your brew. With 30 local beers on tap, available in both half and full pours, at Range you’ll find one of our town’s broadest spectrums of breweries in one place. After dinner, head around the corner to one of Bailey’s other downtown gems, Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar (1004 Locust St., St. Louis, 314.241.8141, Admire the rustic chandeliers made of tree branches as you choose from 55 beers on tap ranging from gypsy brewers like Mikkeller to Belgian standouts like Brasserie Dieu du Ciel. If you are into sours or funky beers, there’s a good chance you’ll find one here.

10 p.m.

Words like “industrial” and “sustainable” describe the tasting room at 4 Hands Brewing Co. (1220 S. Eighth St., St. Louis, 314.436.1559, Open since 2011, this LaSalle Park brewery has quickly gained a loyal following. Sit at the glass-topped communal table made from the brewery’s warehouse door and savor mainstays like Divided Sky Rye IPA or boundary pushers like the seasonal Cuvee Ange.

tatyana telnikova, owner of handlebar // photo by jonathan gayman

Focusing on regionally owned and brewed beers from breweries like Schlafly, O’Fallon and Charleville, HandleBar (4127 Manchester Ave., St. Louis, 314.652.2212, features 20 beers on tap and plenty of bottles to boot. Throw in disc jockeys, dance parties and one of the most eclectic crowds around, and HandleBar is a must visit when you’re not ready for your night to end.

9 a.m.
St. Louisans love soccer, and nowhere is this more evident than Amsterdam Tavern (3175 Morgan Ford Road, St. Louis, 314.772.8224, You’ll feel like you’re across the pond as fans sip on beers while wearing their favorite teams’ jerseys and scarves. A recently expanded, always-rotating draft list has plenty of local flare like Goal-Den Ale, brewed exclusively for the bar by The Civil Life Brewing Co., and classic imported favorites like Reissdorf Kölsch and Carlsberg.

11 a.m.

It’s impossible and unthinkable to talk about St. Louis craft beer without acknowledging the brewery that started it all. Schlafly’s The Tap Room (2100 Locust St., St. Louis, 314.241.2337, offers great pub fare and a wide variety of the brewery’s lineup. If you sit at the bar and get lucky, you may even meet bartenders Kevin Nash or Paul Jensen – both of whom have worked with the brewery since its doors opened in 1991.

1:30 p.m.

Located in a converted 1920s garage in Midtown, Urban Chestnut Brewing Co. (3229 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314.222.0143, combines Old World charm with New World flare. Whether sipping on something traditional from its Reverence series, or enjoying a more modern style from its Revolution series, you’re sure to find plenty of reasons why UCBC is one of our fastest-growing breweries.

patrick hurley (left), a barman at the civil life, drinks a beer with steve smith, owner of the royale // photo by jonathan gayman

3:30 p.m.

Travel south to the city’s Patch neighborhood, and you’ll discover Perennial Artisan Ales (8125 Michigan Ave., St. Louis, 314.631.7300,, a brewery that is garnering national attention for its unique take on both American and Belgian-style ales. Be it an award-winning, limited-release collaboration like Barrel-Aged Sump – an Imperial stout aged 12 months in Rittenhouse Rye barrels and blended with Sump coffee – or one of Perennial’s core beers like the delicate Saison de Lis that is brewed with chamomile, this young brewery’s offerings will make you rethink what beer can be.

8 p.m.

With 22 beers on draft, 40 by the bottle and gems like the Firestone Walker Anniversary Series constantly being added to its growing cellar list, Three Kings Public House (6307 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.721.3355, is a worthy watering hole. Three Kings’ American take on traditional Irish pub fare is an added bonus when liquid carbs are no longer cutting it.

9:30 p.m.

For more than three decades, Cicero’s (6691 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.862.0009, has been a linchpin in The Loop. Choose from 55 rotating beers on tap ranging from Goose Island’s Sofie to Founders’ Breakfast Stout and everything in between. Add to that nearly 200 bottles, and it’s easy to find something you’ll love while you sit at the bar or take in a show in Cicero’s concert venue. A trailblazer on the beer and music scene, Cicero’s continues to draw new fans.


Close out the night at Pin-Up Bowl (6191 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, 314.727.5555, With a beer list that is one of the area’s best-kept secrets, you can try your luck on the lanes or sit back and people-watch with a glass in hand. From bottles of Orval to local craft on tap, Pin-Up is one of the few places that offers craft beer by the pitcher.

the civil life brewing co. // photo by jonathan gayman

Beer & Brewing

Since the early 1800’s, St. Louis was destined to become a beer town. In addition to the large German and Irish population, there was plenty of water, rail connections, limestone caves, and an entrepreneurial spirit that provided the foundation for the city’s beer business.

Today, the tradition continues as St. Louis is home to a number of microbreweries and brewpubs. Explore the history of St. Louis’ beer barons and discover that some of America’s favorite brands have roots in St. Louis.

4. Narrow Gauge Brewing’s Meersalz Rasberry | 8.6% ABV

Now, two things I have to mention here. First, this beer was mentioned more than 10 times, but like O-Katz, the passion for this beer was strong and worth noting. Second, it’s the only beer on this list that I have not tried, but from the look of it, this looks like a humdinger of a slurp.

Brewer’s Notes

Gose style ale brewed with sea salt, coriander, lactose, and aged on raspberries.

Good Wood

The past decade has witnessed an explosion in the amount and variety of craft beer aged in wood, from hefty sours to bourbon-barrel beauties.

CB&B’s Jamie Bogner talks with some leading brewers to get their take on how barrel-aged craft beers are produced.

Lauren Salazar’s notebook is legendary—a run-of-the-mill composition pad with tasting and blending notes on New Belgium’s numerous wood-aged beers dating back to 2001. Some brewers use spreadsheets with color codes and extensive notes, but Salazar—chief blender and brand manager for New Belgium’s specialty beers—prefers pencils and her own shorthand with acronyms for beers in various states of readiness. And smiley faces.

But don’t let the simplicity of her organizational strategy deceive you—the wood-beer program she’s largely responsible for creating mixes equal parts art and science to achieve a sum greater than the individual components. And she’s one of thousands of brewers who have breathed new creative life into the U.S. craft beer market by exploring these time-honored yet creative brewing techniques.

Despite the rapid ascent of barrel-aged beer over the past decade, there’s no clear textbook on the subject or recipe for success. The techniques for barrel aging have remained the subject of oral history—passed from brewer to brewer as a time-honored secret or learned the hard way through trial-and-error.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Wooden barrels have been the vessel of choice for beer fermentation and conditioning for more than two millennia, with fully-enclosed barrels dating back to 800–900 BCE. Over that time, brewers have embraced a wide variety of approaches to barrel use, coating them internally with brewer’s pitch to prevent the beer coming into contact with the wood, or leaving them uncoated to impart wood flavor to the beer. The rise of industrial production in the twentieth century led to the widespread use of steel in commercial breweries, largely due to its improved capacity for cleanliness and sterilization. But for many breweries in Europe, the lineage of using wooden vessels to ferment and age beer is a long and unbroken one.

So why are barrel-aged beers now in such vogue? Some credit Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, which ushered in the most recent era of barrel aging in spirit barrels to impart flavors from liquor. The Chicago brewer first released its hefty Russian imperial stout in 1992, and over the past two decades the beer has become one of the most highly rated and regarded in the country. Others, such as Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo, began experimenting with beers aged in wine barrels in the mid-to-late 90s, integrating his family’s winery experience with his own passion for brewing. But the U.S. barrel-aging trend didn’t hit full steam until the early 2000s, as a general cultural interest in artisanal products pushed more and more North American craft beer enthusiasts to seek out the unique experience that these small-batch brews afforded.

One of the more interesting elements of the barrel-aging trend is the ecosystem that craft beer breweries have built with their barrel suppliers. Many of these barrel-aging programs are a product of place, with Goose Island’s (Chicago, Illinois) proximity to the bourbon-producing state of Kentucky facilitating a natural and symbiotic relationship, while Deschutes Brewery’s proximity to Willamette valley wineries makes its barrel-aged beer a similar part of the local terroir. Still others, like New Belgium Brewing, have approached wood-aged beer as a natural extension of their mission to explore traditional European beer styles.

It’s Not the Size of the Barrel, But the Magic in It

Barrel programs can be broadly characterized by their focus on either sour beer or non-sour beer that is typically spirits-barrel focused, and many breweries produce both. Scale can vary, from local breweries with a handful of barrels to full-scale production programs. Captain Lawrence Brewery in Westchester County, New York, has built a strong reputation for its barrel program with about eighty barrels in use at any given time. Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis has several hundred filled (plus two large oak tanks referred to as “foeders” on the way).

Avery Brewing had about 300 filled earlier this year but announced plans to expand that program to more than 1,000 barrels this year. “We have a little over 300 barrels aging right now, and we have a bunch more coming in,” says Adam Avery. “We’re putting a huge focus on the barrel side.”

Goose Island’s 2013 Bourbon County Brand beers alone accounted for a reported 2,500 whiskey barrels. Deschutes Brewery’s wood-aged sours and spirits-barrel beers account for about 2,000 barrels. New Belgium’s recent addition of thirty-two foeders will bring their program to a capacity of 8,000 hectoliters, which is the equivalent of about 3,500 wine or spirits barrels, later this year.

Foeders and Barrels

By the time most brewers put beer into barrels, it has been fully fermented in steel tanks, and the barrel is simply used to add character as the beer conditions. There are some exceptions where brewers conduct primary fermentation in wooden tanks, but production breweries typically demand more efficiency than that would allow.

“We fully ferment and fully filter every beer before it goes into our wood foeders.” says Salazar. “All we’re doing is feeding the barrels with a dark or light beer matrix. We’re not looking for wood flavor itself in the beer—these foeders are so old that all the flavors, all the tannins are gone. There’s no char. The only things these are, are homes for bugs and basically we’re just feeding the bugs.”

Brewers using spirits barrels have a singular option for their beer conditioning—first-use (and sometimes second-use) barrels that have contained spirits. For those brewing sour beers, there are more options—barrels or large oak foeders—depending on whether the goal of the brewer is to extract flavor from the barrel or simply use the wood vessel as the ideal environment for souring bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus and funky yeast such as _Brettanomyces. _Foeders are ubiquitous among Belgian sour beer producers, and the wood capacity of brewers like Rodenbach, with almost 300 foeders, dwarfs even the largest U.S. wood-aged brewer.

A decade ago, acquiring barrels was less challenging for a brewer interested in barrel aging. Distillers in the U.S. often use barrels only a single time (sometimes forced to by law, in the case of bourbon), and for many years the used barrels were seen as by-products without value. But the rapid growth of the barrel-aged craft beer market, combined with the extended time that spirits like Kentucky bourbon typically spend in barrels, has led to more market constriction.

“There’s competition,” says Perennial’s Cory King. “When you call a [barrel broker], they’re like ‘well, I’ve got someone else who wants them,’ then the price goes up. I don’t like middle men, but that’s all we can do right now.”

Many brewers fall back on personal relationships with like-minded craft distillers to secure access to barrels. “I love Todd Leopold [of Denver craft distiller Leopold Brothers] so much,” says Salazar. “To be able to get all of his apple whiskey, blackberry whiskey, and peach whiskey barrels is really great. We fill those barrels the same day he dumps them.”

Preparing and Caring for Barrels

Understanding the pedigree of the barrel or foeder is the first step in barrel aging. “You really need to know where your barrels are coming from or else you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” says Salazar.

Barrels are best when used immediately after a vintner or distiller empties them, and excessive processing or sanitizing regimens can take valuable flavor out of the barrel or break down the wood itself. “We fill barrels with 185°F (85°C) water to clean and swell the barrel before using it, and have found that the water doesn’t impact the flavor of the barrel,” says Captain Lawrence Brewery founder Scott Vaccaro.

Some brewers, such as Deschutes and Placentia, California’s The Bruery, have invested in steam guns for sterilizing barrels to prevent contamination, but Salazar won’t let steam near her barrels. “You can’t have the water over a certain temperature or you start breaking down the cellulose in the wood,” Salazar says. “Some people steam barrels, but that’s an incredibly destructive method of cleaning. So then you’ve basically says, ‘I don’t want to use this barrel very often’.”

That’s not an issue for one-and-done barrels, but brewers with foeders have to be more careful about protecting that longevity. A number of New Belgium’s foeders are 50 years old, and could last another fifty or more.

The choice to keep a barrel or retire it is generally made on a case-by-case basis. “Some of them are just one-and-done,” says Avery. “Sometimes we keep them. We have a sour program that has neutral barrels because I want to see what our sours taste like without any—or with minimal—barrel influence. But typically the bourbon and rum barrels are one-and-done. I want a lot of that flavor in the beer and to use them again doesn’t work very well.”

“We’ll use a barrel once on the clean beer side,” says Deschutes Brewery Brewmaster Cam O’Connor, “then we’ll move it over to the sour side, and use it as long as we keep getting good beer from it.”

Captain Lawrence’s Vaccaro agrees. “We use spirits barrels one or two times, and we use wine barrels until they go bad. The moment we get acetic acid from them, we empty the barrel and destroy it immediately.”

In dry climates, keeping the barrel environment relatively humid is important. “In the morning, everyone gets a bath,” says Salazar. “We take hoses and spray everybody down and spray the floor down.”

Designing Beers for Barrel Aging

Most brewers engaged in barrel aging have a limited number of “base beers” undergoing the aging process, and the finished beers they release are blends of these base beers, often subject to additional conditioning with additives such as fruit, cocoa nibs, or coffee either in barrels or in steel after the barrel-conditioning process. “[We brew] two base beers that we can manipulate in different ways to create different beers. Oscar, a dark, and Felix, a light, both brewed with lager yeast,” says Salazar.

Similarly, Perennial’s barrel-aged stouts use a common Russian imperial stout base, and the difference between their Abraxas and Sump stouts is the additives on which they condition the beer. “With barrel-aged Abraxas, we had fourteen oak barrels of it, and picked out our favorite eight,” says King. “And that’s where barrel-aged Sump came from, and barrel-aged 17 as well.”

“From a commercial perspective, this gives us more options for blending and creating different beers,” Vaccaro says.

“I’m most excited about coming up with beer that matches a barrel and making it a better beer because of what was in that barrel or what those bugs can do to a beer,” says Avery.

Time in the Barrel

There is no perfectly prescribed amount of time for a beer to spend in a barrel. It’s a subjective process that’s based primarily in routine tasting and sensory analysis, but as a general rule barrel aging with spirits is much faster than souring.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that there’s no substitution for time,” says King. “You can’t rush these things, and that’s what I love about them. You’re not going to make a barrel-aged beer in three months that tastes like it was in a barrel for a year.”

“[For NBB Loves Leopold], we take an already sour Oscar and all we’re trying to do is extract all the whiskey flavor from the barrel. It takes about a month, and the first couple times I did it I thought ‘what would happen if I did it longer,’ but it doesn’t work. It starts becoming vinegary,” says Salazar.

Deschutes’s Green Monster “spends as much as thirty-nine months in the barrel,” says O’Connor.

“We’ve done some blends that are 3-year old, 2-year old, 1-year old,” says Avery. “Typically it takes about a year to get the right acid content. But then, we’ve had beers sour in less than six months.”

“Our Rosso E Marone [sour brown aged with grape flesh and skin] spends about two years in the barrel,” says Vaccaro.

Brewers know when the beer is ready by regularly tasting the contents of each barrel and taking notes. “The problem with a sour barrel is that a sour barrel is a hungry barrel,” says Salazar. “Those bacteria don’t mind being hungry, but after a while they get ‘hangry’ and do not-nice things. There’s that moment where you’re like ‘this is the perfect sour’ and you know something bad is going to happen if you wait.”

Watching the pH can be incredibly useful for brewers monitoring sour development. “We check pH at fill time, then at bimonthly intervals,” says Vaccaro. “We also track gravity when the barrel is filled, because Brett eats sugar nonstop. Low gravity means Brett did its job.”

“[We] are tasting sours at most monthly because there’s not a lot of change going on,” says Avery. “So we take pH readings, but monthly is probably the most we would do it. Maybe every two months. But in the Saccharomyces beers, such as Uncle Jacob’s and Rumpkin, we’re tasting those at least a couple of times a month because all we’re looking for in those beers is to pick up the maximum amount of flavor from the barrels while limiting the oxidation process. You don’t want to leave them in too long because then you have adverse effects. At a certain point, you’re stripping all the flavor out of that barrel that you’re going to get, then you put it in a bright tank and stop the oxidative process.”

Sour beer inevitably passes through what Salazar calls “pedio sick phase,” where Pediococcus generates excessive amounts of diacetyl. “Right when it’s going sour, they go all butterscotch and slick because the diacetyl is doing its thing. Pedio throws off so much diacetyl. The beer is in a phase where it’s still oxidizing, and that rips esters apart, causing alcohols and acids to be exposed. So you have to wait for the Brettanomyces to bind them back together. As long as the yeast can reabsorb it, you’re good to go. Simple as that.”

“But the second you start tasting a sweet tinge instead of sour, that’s acetic acid,” says Salazar. “And there’s no going back from there. There’s no such thing as buffer time once that happens—you’ve got to blend that, as you don’t want that flavor to develop.”

“Tasting the barrels as they progress is the fun part,” says Vaccaro.

When Barrels Go Bad

Barrel aging can be unpredictable, despite brewers’ best efforts to control the process. Barrels will do what they will do, on their own time frame, and the results don’t always match up with the brewers’ intentions.

“We haven’t dumped anything yet, but there’s still a lot of stuff we’re watching to see where it goes,” says King. “We’ve had a few barrels that didn’t hit what we were planning for them, so we put them in the back to see how it goes. We may never do anything with them, and we’ll figure that out soon. But we’re never going to try to polish it and make it something it’s not. Just because you put a beer in a barrel doesn’t mean it’s going to be better. And that doesn’t mean you should sell it. Dump that thing out.”

Vaccaro agrees. “I tell homebrewers they should either have enough to blend, or be ready to dump a barrel down the drain.”
Every brewery aims to reduce the amount of wasted beer, but even a program the scale of Deschutes ends up with bad barrels. “We filled 300 barrels of 2013 Green Monster, and couldn’t use about twenty of those barrels that didn’t work out,” says O’Connor.

Blending Barrel-Aged Beer

As a subject, blending beer is highly subjective and merits a feature-length article of its own, but understanding how brewers blend barrels is key to understanding the barrel-aging process. Each barrel or foeder has a slightly different “personality,” and the flavors it creates can vary significantly. The key to a great barrel program is a brewer with a highly refined sensory palate, who can blend portions of the various barrels to make the finished blend stronger than any individual barrel itself.

“We might fill thirty barrels, then grade all of them individually,” says Avery. “And the thing about grading them is that it’s just a conversation. Then you sit down at a blending station and you start blending things. Typically what will happen is that we’ll do a blend of all the A barrels or maybe some of the A barrels and some of the B barrels. Almost always, there’s a C barrel or something that will add something to all those As and Bs that enhances or maybe mutes something that you didn’t like in one of those A barrels. And it makes a better beer. The Belgians have been doing that forever. They don’t waste beer over there. Even an acetic bomb that’s totally crazy, they’ll still use that in small portions to make a better blend. That doesn’t make sense in a 1+1 kind of equation, but that’s not what’s going on. There’s a different equation going on. Obviously, your palate is telling you what the equation is.”

“We’re not shooting for the same beer every year we’re shooting for the best beer we can make with the base beers we have,” says Salazar. “One year, we had a really great Brettanomyces bloom through the cellar that made these really crazy spicy, clovey flavors. It was something that you couldn’t put your finger on, but it was there in the background. Peter [Bouckaert, New Belgium’s Brewmaster] tasted the barrel it came from, and was like ‘Oh, this is horrible.’ Then when he tasted the final blend, he said ‘This is your best work yet!’”

“Orphan projects” can add additional depth to blends. Whether it’s the barrels that King has stashed in the back of Perennial or misfit barrels from some of Avery’s various projects, adding the contents of some of those barrels to other beers can yield unexpected and interesting results.

“One of the next projects that’s coming out is Rufus Corvus,” says Avery. “It’s two major projects, and they started out as separate projects. One we nicknamed Ginger, one we nicknamed Raven. They are both really good beers by themselves but we blended them together and it was much better. We also had several orphan barrels from around the brewery and adding those into that mix made a better beer as well. Now we have this beer that’s basically two big major projects, and we added three orphan barrels, and that made it better. So you’re talking about fifty oak barrels, and adding three barrels from completely different projects made those fifty barrels better. The only way you know is to sit down at a table and start tasting.”

“We blend for acidity/funk and alcohol,” says Vaccaro. “Acidity can be acetic or lactic, hard or soft. We keep ongoing batches and blend multiple aged versions of same beer to produce the optimum mix of acidity and heat when blending.”

“The beauty of barrels is blending,” says Salazar. “They each have different things going for them, and each barrel is missing stuff.”

To Pasteurize or Not

Whether to pasteurize is an ongoing question with supporters on either side of the question. In a nutshell, pasteurizing is the process of heating beer to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time to kill any yeast or bacteria that might still be at work in the bottle.

Breweries such as New Belgium and Deschutes choose to pasteurize for several reasons. “We’ve run blind tests and found that our pasteurized samples performed better than the unpasteurized ones,” says O’Connor.

New Belgium pasteurizes for safety—their sour beer is bottled on the same bottling line as their non-sour beer, so pasteurizing everything ensures that there is no cross contamination. But they also do it for flavor. “For me it’s a happy thing—I like the fact that we locked in a blend,” says Salazar. “I have a great passion for drinkable sour beers. We already aged it for you.”

For breweries that don’t pasteurize, maintaining safe conditions for their non-sour beer is important. “We basically sterilize the bottle lines after bottling sours,” says Avery. “We bring steam in. We do a double steam and double chemical afterward. It’s actually good that we do the sour beers because at least once every few months, we’re doing a complete steam clean.”

Smaller breweries like Captain Lawrence, who don’t pasteurize, won’t put their sours through their standard bottling line, hand-bottling them instead. It’s a work-intensive process but one they find necessary to avoid cross-contamination. But they don’t do it to allow the bugs to continue to grow. “I don’t know if sours really benefit from additional aging. We bottle them when they’re ready,” says Vaccaro.

For Love of the Craft

Most brewers today produce barrel-aged beers not because they’re moneymakers, but because they’re incredibly passionate about the product. “Barrel-aged beers are about 2 percent of our total production, but 15 percent of our floor space,” says Vaccaro. When asked whether they would have a working business model producing all sours, he answered, “absolutely not.”

Still, craft beer barrel-aging programs continue to grow unabated. “People ask me what my best advice is,” says Salazar, “and I always say ‘Get more barrels than you think you’ll need, fill all of them at the same time, don’t taste so much, and it’s going to take a lot longer than you think.” A ragged notebook filled with more than a decade of tasting notes doesn’t hurt, either.

Watch the video: St Louis Craft Beer Week now through Aug 5 (January 2022).