Lab

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

Cans + QC

Bad news, my friends. We're out of Free Verse India Pale Ale cans.

"But you guys canned a fresh batch on Wednesday, right?"

Yes. Yes, we did. But we can't sell it to you yet.

We take quality control very seriously here at VBC. From our raw ingredients and water, to our cleaning regimen and packaging, quality control is our number one concern, especially with our growing Brettanomyces barrel-fermentation program (more on that later).

Every batch of beer we produce goes through rigorous, in-house microbiological lab testing to ensure that the beer is as intended and infection free. Unfortunately part of this process involves time.

After we move a batch of beer to the brite tank we take aseptic samples of the beer. To ensure sterility of the sample, we flush the sample valve with 70% isopropyl alcohol and flame the port with a propane torch. After cooling the sample valve by running beer through it, we collect an aseptic sample for testing in the lab. This sample is then added to two different selective media - one of which tests for lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillus and pediococcus) and another that tests for wild yeast (Brettanomyces).

Here's where the time part comes in... It takes a minimum of 4 days of anaerobic incubation at 20°-25° C to determine if there are beer spoilers in the beer, so we hold beer in the brite tanks for that long before we will ever package it. Once it clears this test (which thankfully has always been the case - knock on stainless AND wood), we are ready to package into kegs and cans.

After canning we take more aseptic samples from multiple cans and repeat these microbiological tests and incubation time. This of course brings us back to the beginning of this post... We're sorry, but even though Free Verse cans are full and cold in our cooler, we cannot, in good conscience, release this beer until we know it is exactly what we intend it to be (down to a microbiological level) even if it means being out of cans for a few days.

We may bend these rules for some very limited runs of brewery-only release cans in the future, but for our flagship Free Verse India Pale Ale that sees growing distribution, there's simply no risking the beer or our reputation simply to get the beer out a few days early.

All that said, assuming the lab work comes back clean...we'll have Free Verse India Pale Ale cases in the taproom ready to go on Sunday at Noon for all your Super Bowl shenanigans!

I'm an Atlanta guy, so:  cheers to high standards for beer quality and the Falcons!

Brewer's Lab PSA

QA/QC laboratory instrumentation and procedures are important for producing high quality beer in any brewery, but they are absolutely critical in a brewery like The Virginia Beer Co. where we will be purposefully introducing wild yeast and souring bacteria into some of our fermentations.

Brettanomyces (a family of "wild" yeast strains) fermentations will often grow a pellicle (especially in the presence of oxygen) as seen in this photo of our Saison Tournante- Bretta taken just prior to packaging.

Brettanomyces (a family of "wild" yeast strains) fermentations will often grow a pellicle (especially in the presence of oxygen) as seen in this photo of our Saison Tournante- Bretta taken just prior to packaging. Brett in a primary fermentation or mixed culture, like this Saison, will drop the pH of beer further than typical ale or lager yeast strains, producing a fruity tartness, but not a true sourness. To get a truly sour beer, lactic acid bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus must be introduced into the culture.

Our Sour Saving Daylight Citrus Wheat was fermented with three brettanomyces strains as well as a mixed bacteria culture, and it eventually dropped to a very sour 2.98 pH before packaging.

Martini Instruments Mi 150 pH/Temperature Bench Meter - our Sour Citrus Wheat was fermented with three brettanomyces strains as well as a mixed bacteria culture, and it eventually dropped to a very sour 2.98 pH before packaging.

Martini Instruments Mi 150 pH/Temperature Bench Meter - our Sour Citrus Wheat was fermented with three brettanomyces strains as well as a mixed bacteria culture, and it eventually dropped to a very sour 2.98 pH before packaging.

A cellar tool, but also a lab instrument -- Zahm & Nagel CO2 Volume Meter

These beers are exciting, but they're also inherently risky for the other beers in our brewery, so we're making significant investments in our laboratory infrastructure to ensure I can sleep at night knowing our clean ales are indeed clean. Now back to your regularly scheduled craft beer programming!