There are many benefits to employing used barrels for beer fermentation & aging. You can get different flavor profiles depending on the previous liquor – at Crux, we use bourbon, red & white wine & rum barrels. You can get different char/toast levels within the barrels depending on its previous use & barrels can be made of different woods that can lend a great amount of complexity to your beer. Due to these wonderful characteristics, it’s important to keep your barrel stock in good shape.
Before we dive into maintenance, let’s define some basic barrel anatomy:
A couple common reasons barrels may need some maintenance:
1. The barrels were kept empty too long & dry out
2. They have been damaged (either in transit, storage or maybe even by me!)
This can include broken staves, bent/broken/missing hoops, dented heads, etc.
Good news: the barrels can be fixed! Now to introduce some tools & techniques we use:
The tools on the left are called a Cooper’s Hammer & a Hoop Driver. They are the best tools for the job when it comes to “driving hoops” or moving the metal hoops further along the barrel to tighten the wooden staves. Until I got the hoop driver, I used the piece of copper pipe pictured on the right. Looking at those sharp edges, I’m sure you can imagine my elation when the hoop driver came in the mail!
Another important tool for fixing barrels is basic: water & steam. Hot water rinses on the inside and outside provide the barrels with much needed moisture and can expand the staves to fix leaks. Steam gives you a couple benefits – it will provide moisture to expand the barrels and the heat helps take down the microbial load. Some barrels may come in very dry or not smelling great. The steam will kill most of what is in the barrel (microbially speaking) & restore a healthy balance for the beer. We don’t want too many outside microbes interrupting the secondary fermentation or beer aging process within the barrel.
In general, the wine barrels come to us in the best shape. Bourbon barrels are aged longer so they tend to be a bit more beat up. The rum barrels are by far the worst – they are usually retired bourbon barrels used several more times for rum. Pictured above are leaking bourbon (left) & rum (right) barrels. Since these barrels are already full of beer, I can’t exactly hot rinse or steam them. In this case, I will hoop drive to tighten the barrel. You can see a yellowish substance on the front of the rum barrel. Rum barrels are usually double bunged (one on top, which is normal, then one on the head). This head bung can be problematic as it tends to leak due to aging our barrels on their sides. The yellowish substance is barrel wax. This is a last resort and in this case, I covered the entire front bung with wax. Now I need to tackle the head leaks with the hoop driver!
These are just a few things we do to maintain barrels at Crux. There’s a reason a Barrel Cooper is a full-time job! Even with the high level of maintenance, record keeping & expense that goes along with a barrel program, I believe the resulting beer is worth the effort!
Be sure to stop by our Tasting Room often as we release many new Banished beers to the pub only (in very small quantities so they go fast!)
– Katie Liebl
Brewer, Barrel Program Manager