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

Batch 100!

Yet another new beer! On Wednesday we'll be tapping Batch 100 Imperial Oatmeal Porter with Vanilla Beans (9.8% ABV). This was one of our easier naming sessions, as you can imagine. The beer was brewed on our 5 barrel pilot system with a helping hand from our 30 barrel big boy brewing system. Earlier in the year, Jonathan quickly figured out that brewing high-ABV beers on the 5 barrel system was tough due to the size of the mash/lauter tun. The amount of grain needed to produce enough sugar for the yeast (in the case of Batch 100, 950+ pounds) required at least two separate mashes, which was adding an additional 3-4 hours to the overall brew day.

The solution has turned out to be using the 30 barrel mash/lauter tun for the first step of the brewing process. The grain is milled as normal and then transferred to the 30 barrel mash/lauter tun through an auger pipe. Once the mashing and lautering process is complete, the wort is then transferred to the 5 barrel kettle for boiling. The Batch 100 recipe calls for 4 specialty malts and flaked oats in addition to the base malt that we use in the majority of our beers. Chocolate malt is one of the speciality malts - it provides most of the color and a lot of the classic Porter flavor you will taste in the beer.

When fermentation was almost complete, Jonathan prepared 41 Madagascar Vanilla Beans and dropped them into the fermentation vessel. Why 41 beans? Because we can only purchase them in quantities of 16 or 25! After 3 days of conditioning, the rich vanilla flavors we were hoping for were evident and the beans were removed. From there, the beer was cold conditioned, carbonated, and packaged into kegs. Now it's ready for the taproom! 

The first mash in at The Virginia Beer Company (which was Single Hop Sessions - Mosaic) took place on January 24, 2016. Those of you who have been with us since the beginning will probably remember that opening day beer! Batch 100 was brewed on December 21, 2016. One hundred batches in 333 days - not too shabby for our first calendar year. All told, we brewed 57 unique beers in 2016. Five of those beers are still biding their time in various barrels, waiting for a 2017 release. That is a new beer for the taproom about every seven days or so following the opening day lineup we had available on March 26, 2016! Besides our four year-round beers, there were only five beers that were brewed twice (Citra Pale Ale, Deadbolt Double IPA, Saison Tournante - Rye & Amarillo, Green's View IPA, and Rob Your Head Imperial Red). Others may return in the future...we're excited to share those old friends as well as many, many new beers in 2017!

Forward Hop Contracts

One of the things that people outside of the beer industry often overlook is the ingredient supply chain. Procuring raw ingredients to produce beer isn't a sexy part of the business, but it's obviously necessary and important for the continued operation of a brewery. Forethought and planning is required for every ingredient that ends up in a beer, but hops demand the bulk of the attention.

Hops are the female flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant. While traditionally used mostly as a bittering agent and a preservative, hops have more recently been utilized for their aroma qualities. You can thank hops for all of those great citrus or pine aromas you're getting from that IPA in your hand! As an agricultural product, hops are subject to the whims of Mother Nature. Harvests have been stable in recent years, but there is always the chance that a shortage could occur. One such event occurred in 2008 and it caused major issues for craft beer production in the US. 

As a result of the unpredictability of harvests and the ever-changing tastes of consumers, forecasting both the availability of certain hop varieties and the level of consumer interest is an extremely challenging exercise. Due to the high level of demand for hops, though, breweries routinely forecast their needs and enter into forward contracts for as many as five to seven years. An additional benefit of forward contracting is that hop farmers receive valuable signals about the direction of the market and adjust their acreage accordingly.

We are no different here at The Virginia Beer Company. Many startup breweries have a tough time purchasing certain high-demand varieties through the spot market. We didn't want to be caught in that position after years of testing recipes, so we entered into our first hop contracts for the 2014 harvest. We recently completed all of our contracting through the 2017 harvest! As I mentioned, forecasting our actual needs is challenging. Increasing production more quickly than anticipated and running out of hops would be a good problem to have, but it would still be a problem. If we've done our research and planning correctly (and nature cooperates...) we will be able to brew our recipes through 2018 without worrying about shortages!

Here are the key stats related to our hop contracts:

  • 4: Hop wholesalers with whom we have contracted.
  • 5: Countries where our hops will be grown (England, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, & the U.S.)
  • 6.35: The lowest priced variety of hops per pound, in dollars (2014 U.S. Columbus).
  • 11.66: The average price of all contracted hops per pound, in dollars.
  • 16: Unique varieties of hops that we will be purchasing.
  • 20.30: The highest priced variety of hops per pound, in dollars (2016 U.S. Sorachi Ace).