American craft brewing died an unfortunate death from an illness that began with the hacking cough that was Prohibition and ended in the 1970s and ’80s with the pillow to the face that was mass production and consolidation. So it comes as no surprise that long-held traditions disappeared along the way. Marketing replaced the need to provide flavor. Small batches with top-notch ingredients in the hands of artisan brewers went underground as the beginnings of the homebrewing movement. And the venerable oak barrel was replaced by the modern marvel of stainless steel.
But just as craft beer has returned to this nation as the fastest-growing segment of the beer industry — even in recession — ye olde traditions are coming back, too. And they’re not just a trend, but a sustainable change in the way we make and think about beer. To showcase one of these once lost arts, the brewers of San Antonio’s own Freetail Brewing Co. and Blanco’s Real Ale Brewing Co. have teamed up to bring us the RealTail Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers July 17. Doors open at the Freetail brewpub at 11:30 a.m. and the rare beer releases will be served until they run out.
What we’re talking about is taking a very well-made beer that would taste pretty darn good as is and sending it to age in an oak barrel for weeks or even months. The process imparts woody flavors such as a mild vanilla character. It also adds the flavors of the previous occupant of the barrel, usually wine or whiskey. But the wild card is the flavor that’s added by naturally occurring bacteria living in the wood. These strains of bacteria, in the right hands, can add a delightful sourness to the beer that elevates it. One wrong move or a piece of bad luck, however, and the drain gets the fruits of the labor.
Freetail brewer Jason Davis is modest about his skill with the bugs and the wood and says it’s all experimental. But his experiments over the years at Freetail and previous breweries have consistently been winners. Freetail’s offerings will include barrel-aged versions of La Muerta imperial stout, winter-warmer Old Bat Rastard, and versions IV and V of the wild ale Solera.
“With our Solera, we never completely empty a barrel,” said Freetail founder Scott Metzger. “When we pull some out, we immediately replace it and the wild activity occurring in the barrel is constantly evolving.”
All of Freetails offerings for the rare-beer tasting were aged in whiskey barrels acquired from the Four Roses bourbon distillery. Two French-oak wine barrels from Dry Comal Creek winery sit in the restaurant with the promise of things to come; Davis said the brewers will pull their first taste of Freetail’s popular Rye Wit next month to see what they have wrought and make any adjustments as needed.
Real Ale is contributing beers aged in wine barrels once used by Sister Creek winery for a twist on their bold seasonal beers. The Mysterium Verum, or “Real Mystery,” series will make its first appearance in San Antonio, meaning less of it for the ever-thirsty Austin market. Offerings include Empire (from the Lost Gold India Pale Ale), Highlander (barrel-aged Real Heavy Scotch Ale) and the Devil’s Share (from the Devil’s Backbone Belgian-style tripel.)
If all goes according to plan, Freetail will have both the barrel-aged versions of the Real Ale and the original versions so they can be tasted side by side.
Sure, the barrel-aging trend is yesterday’s news to the people in the craft-ebeer industry, but as more brewers try their hand at it, they are passing that enthusiasm on to customers who demand more. Tom Griffin of Wisconsin-based Griffin Barrels has been selling used bourbon, rye, brandy, and wine barrels to the craft brewing industry for 11 years and says now brewers can’t get enough. “The more they get, the more they want,” he said.
Griffin cautions that just because more customers are enjoying wood, whiskey, and intentional sourness in their beers doesn’t mean all of them are done right, and that can give the process a bad name. “If you can come at it with an artist’s brush, then OK, but so many are going at it willy-nilly,” Griffin said. “It’s going to be several years before there’s a mature market.”
Davis says he thinks the fact that storing beer in barrels was the norm for centuries could mean the renaissance is here to stay. “If it’s a trend, it’s a trend back toward the old way of doing things,” Davis said. Stainless-steel and bacteria-free beers won’t go away, either, and give brewers the opportunity to blend batches aged both ways for yet another creation. “It’s all about finding a balance. It’s like the best of both worlds.”
Travis E. Poling is a long-time San Antonio journalist with a focus on beer and business. He is the author of the book Beer Across Texas: A Guide to the Brews and Brewmasters of the Lone Star State. Email him at [email protected].