Barrels

The Cellar Circus

Virginia Beer Co. to Begin Release of Cellar Circus

Barrel-Fermented Permutation Series

The Cellar Circus is a new oak barrel-fermented permutation series concocted by the brewers of the Virginia Beer Co.

“This is a thoughtful experiment in Brett Farmhouse Ale recipes fermented directly in 11 Red and 11 White Wine Oak Barrels with a fusion of Saison yeast and Brettanomyces,” stated VBC Brewmaster Jonathan Newman.

Blending from unique, individual red and white wine barrels creates a litany of flavors amplified by almost a year spent fermenting directly in wood. Sweetness from the oak barrels is immediately followed by aromatics produced by the estery qualities of a Saison and delicate use of a variety of hops. Upon further investigation, the character instilled by the use of Brettanomyces during fermentation produces a complementary fruit-forward aftertaste with a clean, dry finish.

These will be the launch of an ongoing exploration of the infinite number of permutations possible as a result of purposeful, experimental barrel-fermentation and blending. The first two releases – Blend No. 001 and Blend No. 002 – were aged entirely in oak for almost a year, then blended and bottle-conditioned since Jul. and Dec. 2018 (respectively). These Brett Farmhouse Ales will be unveiled in the Virginia Beer Co. taproom beginning in late April with planned releases of new blends every quarter going forward.

“Featuring a rotation of hops and a combination of yeast, oak, and time…the finished product is complex yet delicate,” noted Jonathan. “After over a year of fermentation and aging, these blends are ready to enjoy now and fit for extended cellaring. We hope you’ll enjoy peaking behind the curtain to learn about the juggling act of brewing with wild yeast and the many permutations of blending as much as our team has.”

Learn more via the brewery’s Facebook page here: facebook.com/events/335109860541635/

The Barrel Fermentation Project

Within a few months of opening our doors in March 2016 we started putting beer in oak barrels at The Virginia Beer Company.  There's nothing particularly ground-breaking about barrel-aging high gravity beers. Pretty much every brewery is doing it, and for good reason - the results can be delicious. 

In July 2016 we started the Barrel Fermentation Project.  While most barrel-aged beers are fermented in stainless steel tanks, and then fully fermented beer is racked into oak to age, this project is a little different.  Taking inspiration from old world brewing techniques, the Barrel Fermentation Project fills used wine barrels with freshly cooled wort direct from the brewhouse, completely bypassing the stainless cellar tanks. Once in the barrels the wort for Batch I was inoculated with a variety of yeasts including multiple strains of Brettanomyces, a "wild" Saccharomyces strain, and Saison yeast. 

Spontaneous fermentation, this is not, and does not pretend to be. Known cultures were pitched with intention and flavor profiles in mind. That said, there is a definite lack of control involved in this project and that makes it that much more exciting. So much of my day as a brewer is about controlling fermentation - yeast cell counts, fermentation temperature profiles, sanitation, gravity readings, QA/QC lab sampling/incubation, etc. The Barrel Fermentation Project gets rid of most of that regimentation, instead leaving the blend of yeasts to do their own individual thing as they will over time. 

On the day we pulled Barrel Fermentation I from the Hungarian Oak red wine barrels for packaging, we were simultaneously brewing another batch, Barrel Fermentation II. As soon as the barrels were empty they were refilled with fresh wort for Barrel Fermentation III. Refilling the same barrels allows the now resident yeast culture in the barrels to take over with no additional yeast being added.  We'll see what happens with this one and let the beer and the barrels tell us when it is ready!

This first release is one of my favorite beers that I've ever had a hand in producing, and I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I do. I think it had just the right amount of Brettanomyces fruity funk to complement (but not overpower) the Nelson Sauvin hops and oak character. 

Barrel Fermentation II (also brewed in July 2016) has been tasting quite nice out of the barrels. It has since been kegged and bottled, with an infusion of Brett Brux directly into the bottles to add a component of bottle-conditioning to this project. The bottle-conditioning will produce even more of the trademark esters and phenols that often mark a "Brett beer" as funky with hints of tartness.

Entirely approriate to enjoy now or to cellar for a future occasion, look for the bottle releases of Barrel Fermentation II, III, and IV - all blends that have fermented for months in Williamsburg Winery French & American oak red wine barrels. No promises on when Batch V will be ready - time and wild yeast will tell.

Cheers to lack of control and more barrel fermentations!

Learn more about...

Saison Tournante - Barrel Fermentation I

Saison Tournante - Barrel Fermentation II

Saison Tournante - Barrel Fermentation III

Saison Tournante - Barrel Fermentation IV

Roll Out The Barrels!

On a daily basis we're reminded of how challenging it is to open a complex manufacturing operation like a brewery. There are a million pieces to the puzzle; we've completed the border and are slowly making headway as we try to fill in the rest. Given that we've ordered the bulk of our brewing equipment, submitted a site plan, and are close to completing our building plans, we've now moved on to other pieces of equipment that are equally as important but require less lead time.

A beautiful sight, especially when full of VBC's finest #BurgBeer.
A beautiful sight, especially when full of VBC's finest #BurgBeer.

One of those items is our keg float. The beer we produce will only be as good as the container from which it is served! While kegs may seem relatively minor in terms of the entire brewing process, they are a major expense for a brewery and can become a bottleneck for production if there aren't enough available. Cleaning kegs is a repetitive, thankless job the best job in the world, is anyone interested?

Understanding the lifecycle of a keg is important before considering how to procure them. Kegs arrive at a brewery and are then cleaned and sanitized according to the brewery's procedures. The keg is filled with finished beer and then transported a wholesaler's warehouse. From there the wholesaler delivers the keg to a retailer upon order. The wholesaler returns to the retailer to pickup the empty keg once it has been served. The empty keg then returns to the wholesaler's warehouse and is eventually returned to the brewery. 

This process can be quick (2 weeks or so) but is generally between 4-6 weeks. Retailers will sometimes hold onto a keg for a long period of time before serving the beer. Basically, breweries have no idea when their kegs will be returned! Another issue to consider is keg loss. This can happen due to simple misplacement of kegs, wholesalers returning kegs to the wrong brewery, or somebody stealing kegs and scrapping them for cash. The Brewers Association calculates that keg loss costs every brewery between $0.46 and $1.37 per-barrel of annual keg production. That really adds up over time! 

Standard keg dimensions and volumes. VBC will be using 1/6 Barrel and 1/2 Barrel kegs.
Standard keg dimensions and volumes. VBC will be using 1/6 Barrel and 1/2 Barrel kegs.

There are a few options when it comes to procuring kegs. One is to simply purchase new kegs from well-known manufacturers like Franke or Schaefer, or from companies that resell kegs from China and other places. There are some used kegs available for purchase as well, but prices are generally high (everybody is looking for kegs!) and you never know how well the kegs have been treated/cleaned over time.

One of the industries that has benefited most from the enormous growth of craft beer is the keg leasing industry. There are multiple companies (like Keg Credit, Keg Logistics, and Atlas Keg) that offer daily lease rates for new kegs. Most offer either set term leases or lease-to-own programs that include a purchase option after a certain period. Some companies, like Microstar Keg Management, go even further and integrate the logistics of the packaging process into the keg lease. Microstar provides breweries with as many kegs as they want from a pooled set of kegs, and once those kegs are filled and shipped to a wholesaler the tracking and return is completely handled by Microstar.

Every brewery handles their keg needs differently depending on a multitude of factors. We are currently considering each of the options laid out here and are planning to make a decision within the next month or so. At least we get to put together another spreadsheet to help evaluate our options! It's like we never left the world of finance. But it's better to be evaluating kegs instead of hedge fund performance!

VBC and...Wine?

VBC and...Wine?

If you gave Team VBC a choice of one beverage to bring to a desert island it would absolutely be beer. However, from time to time we like to spread our wings and venture out into the wider world of alcoholic beverages. We do this because many of those beverages are extremely tasty, and also because they broaden our palates and give us ideas for future brewing experiments. We try to go local and/or small when choosing wine or liquor. In terms of wine, we often sample products from The Williamsburg Winery here in Williamsburg, Veritas Vineyard & Winery in Afton, VA, and Barboursville Vineyards outside of Charlottesville. When we pour a liquor it's generally a whiskey (either in a Manhattan or straight with rocks on the side) from great small distilleries like Copper Fox in Sperryville (and soon in Williamsburg!) or Corsair in Nashville, Tennessee (try the Triple Smoke if you ever see it on a menu or a store shelf).

As most beer craft beer aficionados are aware, partnerships between breweries and wineries/distilleries have produced wonderful products. Aging beer in used barrels opens up a plethora of new flavors and is something that we plan to explore once The Virginia Beer Company is up and running...