"This is a story of beer, barrels and unintended consequences, of renegade brewers, and of a pet project turning into a wild beast. This is the story of Barrelworks...."
Patti the "big dill" Pickle here, sharing tidbits of what you can look forward to at this year's Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival. Recently, I had the opportunity to sample the wild beast, better known as beer making, with Jeffers Richardson of Firestone's Barrelworks. Read on to unravel the mystery of the sour, wild ale.
Patti the Pickle: Explain the concept of Barrelworks and how this "pet project" turned into a wild fermented beast!
JR: It is less a concept than it is an evolution. It started in 2007 as a pet clandestine project that our then Quality Control Manager, Jim Crooks, tended to in a small warehouse near the brewery. Experimenting with wild yeast and bacteria, as well as spontaneous fermentation in used wine barrels, it started with four barrels, then expanded to eight. Next thing you know, we had a couple dozen, and the idea of having a unique place to showcase the beers started to ferment. That’s when I came on board—to coordinate and plan our next move.
Moving to Buellton made perfect sense—this was the location of the Firestone Walker Brewery for the first 5 years of our existence. Original brewer (moi), original location, mixed with our mad scientist (Jim Crooks), and some barrels and wild microflora thrown in, meant that we were coming full circle: Back to our origins. In addition, we could showcase our wild beers, educate on the influences of oak on beer, as well as have room for more creativity and blending. In a nutshell, that’s what we are about: Barrels, Blending and Balance. We took over a 7000 sq foot facility, added a tasting room, and started to collect barrels and wild microflora-namely Brettanomyces and lactobacillus. Today, we have an eclectic collection of retired wine barrels, Firestone Union barrels, puncheons, and foeders of different sizes, both French and American Oak. Currently, we have the equivalent of 800 barrels in our barrel corridor. It’s a magnificent site. I don’t think we can call this a “pet project” anymore!
Patti the Pickle: To those new to sour ales, please explain the difference between fermentation and wild yeast fermentation.
JR: Modern brewing practices dictate that a brewery is a clean sanitary stainless steel-clad facility that manages clean (single strain) yeast strains. Control over the process is paramount. This is an important way to maintain consistency and flavor in modern brewing. There are many strains of yeast for brewers to choose from, so this helps brewers distinguish their beers. Wild yeast typically are persona non grata in a brew house. It is considered wild because it is airborne or transferred around uninvited. In the past 125 years, breweries have managed and singled out the strains of yeast they want to use in their brew house. All others are uninvited.
There was, however, a culture of using wild strains in Belgium, that somehow survived the push for modern brewing practices. These beers were considered “wild” or in some cases “sour” with tart, funky (earthy, fruity, spicy, barnyard) flavors. To some, this is an acquired taste. To others, manna from Heaven. To me, it lends complexity, and is refreshing and crisp. American craft brewers, in the constant pursuit of creativity and exploration have embraced sour or wild beers and making them is the antithesis of modern brewing practices. Having said this, as modern brewers, we do exert some control over the process-that’s how we can create and maintain good practices and hopefully good beer. As you know, I prefer the word “Wild” to “Sour”. The latter implies all the beers are sour. This is not always the case. For example, the wild yeast Brettanomyces doesn’t usually produce the sourness in beer. It’s the bacteria Lactobacillus, producing lactic acid, that does. Some Brett’d beers doesn’t exhibit much sourness at all. Some beers are only fermented with Lactic Acid and only exhibit sourness. There is a broad spectrum of flavors and aromas in the “wild” category.
Patti the Pickle: You have started to produce sours aged in local wine barrels (Belgian farmhouse method). Please explain this tradition and what it adds to the complexity of the ale.
JR: Historically, and specifically, the term ‘farmhouse ales’ refers to the making of saison beer in Belgium. Our Lil Opal is an example of one of these rustic farmhouse ales. Rural families would make their own beer, usually a low to medium level alcohol beer, to slack the thirst of summer help on the farm. They would make beer, place it in barrels—the preferred storage vessel at the time, where it would often go through a secondary “wild” fermentation, as well as be influenced by oak. A style or appreciation for such beer was born, and some farmhouses turned into small breweries. This tradition has been maintained in certain areas of Belgium and has a growing yet small interest here in the US. Firestone Walker has been working with barrels since 1996. We have three barrel programs, The Union fermentation, Spirit Barrel and now our “live” or “wild” barrel program.
We are fascinated by oak barrels. This last program is the focus of the Barrelworks and generally is referred to as farmhouse inspired ales. Retired wine, as well as Union Barrels, create a habitat or bring us a habitat for wild yeast and bacteria to flourish. The Oak components (lactones, lignins, and wood sugars) impart flavor and aroma. The synergy between the components from microflora and oak marry and evolve over time. Examples of flavors from the yeast are “funky, earthy, spicy, tropical fruit.” From the barrels, “vanilla, spice, caramel, coconut”. There are many more flavors and aromas. I love tasting from a barrel over several months to taste and smell the beer’s progress.
Patti the Pickle: Eccentric and experimental, what has been the reaction to your line of sour beers? Where do you see the wild beer industry going?
JR: The response to our wild beers has been overwhelming. For over a year, people have been able to visit our tasting room and sample some of our creations and one-off’s. It’s an amazing group that visit us—very enthusiastic and curious. This year we are actually releasing some beers in bottles and selling them at the Barrelworks and at our Brewery Store in Paso. The three bottle releases so far have been fantastic. One person came all the way from Florida for one of our releases. Another group from Phoenix. Can you believe it? We are both humbled and honored that our customers will drive hours to experience our tasting room and beers. These people will brave lines in the early AM just to purchase our beer. Friendships are made while queuing up. It’s an awesome site. Our bottle releases disappear fast, but we usually have it on draft at the Barrelworks tasting room.
I don’t think I would call our wild beer niche an “industry”. It’s still very small. There is growing interest and enthusiasm for beers of this style and it’s great fun for some of us, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to other craft styles. I think it will become more established, but I don’t see it knocking on IPA’s door to contest for dominance. It will remain a small geeky, creative and enthusiastic niche. I’m content with that.
Patti the Pickle: On average, how many sours are on tap? Do you have a personal favorite?
JR: We have anywhere from 5-10 wild beers on tap. We have 4-5 core beers on tap-Bretta Weisse, Agrestic, Lil Opal, Sour Opal-then rotate seasonals, new releases or one-offs. We also have eight taps dedicated to our other barrel programs that feature Anniversary beer components and very rare one-offs.
My favorite? Right now, Bretta Rose, because it’s new and vibrant, but ask me in five minutes and I’ll give you another answer. Sour Opal is one of my favorites, but it depends upon what kind of mood I’m in. These beers are like my children—It’s hard to show favoritism, they all have great characteristics.
Patti the Pickle: We look forward to your participation at this year's festival. Where can customers go to purchase these tart and refreshing ales?
JR: We only sell bottles at our Barrelworks tasting room and at our Brewery Store in Paso. When our Venice location opens, we will have bottles there as well. We hand fill and package our beer, so cases are limited for each release. Sadly, we don’t distribute farther afield-we don’t make enough for that. Kegs of our beer, will trickle out into the market for special events and festivals. Best thing to do is come to the Barrelworks and visit our tasting room. It’s a unique experience and should be on any beer enthusiast’s bucket list.
(Note: Currently we are open Friday-Sunday, 12-7PM, but plan on expanding this summer)