Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Barrel-Aging Techniques and Process: Second Nature Peach Sour Saison
There are a number of reasons that writing about beer for this blog has become more challenging since jumping into the commercial side of things for Kent Falls Brewing Co. Surprisingly, it's not even so much that the actual brewing process has changed. I found it relatively easy to scale everything up — that transition is something I want to write about more, and will, but I almost don't know what to say. Most brewing to me is a matter of intuition, and while there are plenty of technical and logistical things to work out, my answer to how I scale up my old concepts most of the time would be a big ol' ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
More challenging, in terms of writing about brewing, is that you start to think about each beer and the process behind it differently. Or at least, that's been the case with me, but the last year and a half of my life have been one never-ending mental breakdown, so who knows. Regardless, as a homebrewer, each batch felt more distinct, more of an individual project. One batch at a time, everything I made was a focused reservoir of my attention. It seems like it should be the opposite, but as a homebrewer, I felt way more obsessive about each beer I made, and for better or worse, far more inclined to poke and prod at it as I waited anxiously to know how it would come out.
I'm sure plenty of commercial brewers feel this way about every one of their commercial brews too, so maybe it's just the delirium and crushing existential crises warping my attentions, but brewing now feels more like a ride that I'm trying to steer than some little pet project that I'm micro-managing obsessively. Actually, though, I think homebrewing for long enough inevitably trains you for this too, especially homebrewing sours. You have to learn patience at some point. You have to accept that some batches, of the many carboys that once took up space in my incredibly nerdy and fascinating-to-visitors Beer Room, just have to be ignored for a good long while, and any attention you give them will probably do more harm than good. Scaling up to the point of having a thousand gallons plus of beer in barrels, this effect is exacerbated even more. No longer is this beer a singular, isolated project, but now a chain of events, a chain of 8 - 12 hour work-days, a series of vessels to transfer liquid between. Your attention becomes divided between numerous projects and a hundred points of stress and worry. For the same reason, some of these beers would be impossible to "clone," because there are so many unique steps and variables involved. You could mimic the process, but never the exact circumstances.
But here's the story of one such beer, the first real aged sour beer we've released at Kent Falls. I've done a couple different gose, our seasonal tart saison, and one previous barrel-aged release, a Brett saison with grapefruit zest. But we're finally just starting to dip into the whole barrel-aged sour thing, now that most of our barrels have contained liquid for at least half a year. To start, the barrel-aged saisons are going to fall into two releases. "Nature" will be a mixed-culture barrel-aged saison, always created from some new blend of barrels, and likely a bit different with each release. We'll release that possibly twice a year, or maybe just once a year, to really go for an annual vintage thing. Any fruited barrel-aged saisons will fall under the "Second Nature" name — again, pulling from the same selection of barrels, I'll pull some aging saison to receive fruit.
Even when homebrewing, replicating any one barrel-aged beer is going to be incredibly difficult without blending. Add to that the fact that I'm not necessarily going to try to recreate the exact same beer every time, and I have two dozen barrels to choose from (a very tiny number compared to many breweries) and you're starting from a baseline of endless variation: living beer in a living environment that's going to change and evolve over time. Like most of the barrels in the brewery right now, the two barrels that I selected for this peach sour were filled with liquid from our earliest batches of saison. Probably the most interestingly-different thing about my process for these beers is that the base beer was fermented out to a very low gravity before being transferred into the barrels, like 1.5 plato. Conventional wisdom is generally that you'll want to leave some residual sugar in the beer for the Brett and bacteria to munch on. Brett, however, really doesn't need much to eat to create its distinct character, and even just the autolysis of the yeast around it may be enough to feed it, especially in the oxygen-friendly environment of a barrel.
As a result, the beer resting in the barrel after four months of aging was not crazy sour. It had the pleasant flavor qualities of an aged sour, just minus the bracing acidity. This is pretty much what I was going for — "balance and approachable" seems to be an unstated theme of Kent Falls' beers, so I'm not trying to push my barrel-aged sours to be tongue-savaging acid monsters. I figured the beer would pick up a bit more acidity once it was on the peaches, though, and it did. We have two plastic holding tanks that serve as our fruiting tanks, for now. Some fruit I'm adding straight into the barrel: we picked some 80 lbs of local cherries for another such barrel-aged saison that's been aging since late summer. The cherries can stay in that barrel for as long as they want, as far as I'm concerned. Peaches, though, seemed like a royal pain in the ass to stuff into a barrel, so a plastic secondary tank was the solution we came up with for now.
This lead to one of the most fun (read: not fun) days of my brewing career. A few days before our hop harvest festival, during one of the busiest weeks of the year, and after spending a full day already brewing, I sat around hand-dicing 200 lbs. of peaches and throwing them into the plastic holding tank. I actually just slit the peaches in quarters but left them on the pit, so they held together as whole fruit, but with their flesh exposed. I figured as whole fruit, they'd be less likely to clog something up (a whole peach is larger than the opening of a butterfly valve), but slit, so the inside surface area would still be available to the beer. Anyway, that took until 3 in the morning, even once there were two of us going at it. Really fun, let me tell you.
The beer fermented out on the peaches surprisingly fast, hitting 1 plato terminal gravity in less than two weeks. We only left it there for about 5 weeks before bottling it.
And yet more variables that would be hard to replicate at home: I did absolutely nothing to sanitize the peaches, figuring it'd be nice to pick up whatever local microbes happened to be along for the ride. As a result, the beer went through a really happy pediococcus phase during bottle conditioning, which added complexity and enhanced acidity, rounding out all the flavors to great benefit. Now that it's ready for drinking (the pedio phase cleared up after about 6 weeks, thanks to the Brett hanging around), Second Nature - Peach has one of the best noses on a peach beer that I've had recently, with a perfect marriage of oaky vanilla character (much more than I expected to get out of these wine barrels, to be honest) and juicy fresh peach.
I'm very, very happy with how this one came out, and very excited to share this with everyone once we release it (at the New Milford farmer's market, December 19th, if you happen to be in the area). However, I have no clue how I'd share a recipe for this beer that wasn't utterly meaningless. Hopefully discussing the process (which really is the recipe, in this case) is somewhat helpful, at least. Beers like this, the product of scale-brewing and production schedules and McGuyvering and improvising and last-minute decisions and luck and timing and patience and terroir, are less like painting a portrait, one careful and deliberate brush stroke at a time, and more like some Jackson Pollock expressionist bullshit, dangling from a wire above a canvass, with a bucket of paint, just flinging shit in all directions and trusting that it's going to look pretty cool in the end.