So, Your Club Wants to Start A Barrel Project

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A barrel project organized by a homebrew club.

By Jason Wing

An excellent project for a homebrew club to organize is a group barrel-aged beer, where members brew wort to add to a barrel collectively. By coming together to fill a barrel (in many cases 50 gallons), a club is creating an approachable opportunity for a homebrewer to explore barrel-aging hands-on while encouraging more meaningful interactions among club members.

Running a club barrel project is very manageable, but there are certainly some details to consider, so read on!

Sourcing the Barrel

Start by asking around in your club. Chances are, someone has a connection to get a barrel at a distillery or through a brewery. You might also get a good bargain going through a club member!

Another option is to buy the barrel. You can find barrels online, in homebrew shops, and in commercial breweries/distilleries. Sourcing the barrel through a store typically offers more volume options, which can be beneficial depending on how many club members plan to participate.

Housing the Barrel

This is very important, as you don’t want a 50+ gallon barrel filled with homebrew and nowhere to keep it.

Unless your club has shared space, someone will have to keep a large, heavy object–the filled barrel–at their house for an extended amount of time.

Ensure you have a location prepared and set up to house the barrel while it ages. You may want to build a barrel rack to hold the barrel. Environmentally, a basement is ideal with temperatures consistently in the 60s*F

Beer Style and Recipe

The first big question is also one of the best fun parts! What should we brew?

The club gets to discuss what style of beer and what the recipe should be. Imperial Stout? English Barleywine? Wee Heavy? Old Ale?

Also, know that the first beer you put in will have the most whiskey/gin/tequila flavor (depending on the spirit in the barrel previously). The second and third beers that get aged will have diminishing spirit character but will continue to have that excellent oak essence. Keeping this in mind, it can be a great idea to plan the first two beers you plan to age.

Club Participation

Homebrew clubs are generally filling a barrel around 50-gallons. You will need enough club members to brew enough beer to fill the barrel completely to avoid oxidation issues.

The brewing can be divided according to the number of participants and brew system capacities. For example, a common break-out is twelve or thirteen homebrewers making 5-gallon batches.

Depending on your club’s barrel filling method (more on that later), you may also want to specify what type of vessel each person should use (keg, carboy, etc.).

One of the most critical parts is ensuring participants who sign up deliver the beer they’ve committed to brewing. Emphasizing this when signing people up and sending out a reminder or two is a great way to keep people on time.

Barrel Fill Day

The big day has come! Gather everyone at the location where the barrel will be kept. This is an excellent opportunity to bring in other club members who may not have brewed beer for the barrel but are interested in seeing the process.

Start by taking a quick inventory of all the beer vessels. Then, taste each keg, and ensure you aren’t adding any infected or questionable beer to the barrel. Of course, these sorts of things can happen when homebrewing, but you want to avoid spoiling the entire barrel. For this reason, it can also be wise to plan for slightly more beer than is needed for the barrel.

If club members are submitting their contributions via kegs (which I recommend), have a small CO2 canister and a picnic tap so the group can taste each beer. Once you’ve confirmed all kegs of fantastic tasting beer, it is time to transfer to the barrel!

It is ideal to have a pump (such as a March Pump) and a standard auto-siphon to connect each keg for the transfer. The pump will speed up the process.

Also, encourage participants to bring a commercial example of the beer style you are trying to make. This is a great way to not only share some great beer but discuss where club members see the finished beer landing.

Deciding on the Next Turn of the Barrel

Knowing what beer is destined for the barrel next is a crucial step to decide before you empty the first barreled beer into kegs.

Ideally, shortly after you transfer the first beer out of the barrel, you reload it with a new beer. Remember that each additional time a barrel is used, it will have diminished spirit quality and likely some character from the previous beer.

If you can’t refill the barrel with beer right after emptying it, I would recommend using a holding solution in the barrel until you are ready to fill it again. Potassium metabisulfite is my go-to recommendation.

Once you get past the second turn of the barrel, really think about just the oak character. This point can also be an excellent time to consider turning the barrel sour.

Keg Filling Day

The payoff! It’s best to get the keg filling date on everyone’s calendars a month or so ahead of time. Use the same pump and auto-siphon to transfer to keg as you did to fill it.

There will be a bit of loss, so participants should anticipate getting less than they put in. For example, if we had a dozen people brew 5 gallons for a barrel, you can expect something like 4.5 gallons of finished barrel-aged neer.

Marking your kegs with volume lines ahead of time is helpful to ensure a fair distribution. Another option is to weigh out 4.5 gallons of water and use that as a guide when filling the kegs on a scale.

Next Steps

After your first club barrel project, you can consider many exciting directions to pursue.

If there is enough interest, you can fill multiple barrels at a time. Try barrels from different distilleries and of various spirits.

You can start to think about blending, especially if you plan to pursue multiple barrels. Pulling samples and devising the perfect blend is a great club activity.

Consider employing a solera method. A portion of the barrel-aged beer is pulled out while the same amount is added back in. This process keeps an ongoing flow of barrel-aged beer, but do keep in mind the barrel character will still change over time despite never being completely emptied.

Overall, running a barrel project is a natural fit for a homebrew club. JUST DO IT!

There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction obtained by drinking your own barrel-aged beer, and it’s even better when you’re doing it with your brew buddies.

Cheers!

Anastasia Imperial Barrel-Aged Stout Recipe

This Russian-style imperial stout recipe is perfect for aging in a barrel.

Specifications

  • Volume: 5.5 gallons
  • Target Gravity: 1.090
  • IBU: 75

Ingredients

MALT

  • 15.5 lb 2-row pale malt
  • 1.5 lb Fawcett roasted barley
  • 1.5 lb Fawcett chocolate malt
  • 1 lb wheat

HOPS

  • 2.75 oz Centennial, 9.3% a.a. (60 minutes)
  • 0.5 oz Centennial, 9.3% a.a. (20 minutes)
  • 0.5 oz Centennial, 9.3% a.a. (1 minute)

MISC

  • Irish Moss (10 minutes)

YEAST

  • 1056 American Ale (starter)

Directions

Mash at 152*F for 60 minutes. Conduct a 60 minute boil. Ferment according to the yeast’s parameters. Age in oak barrels.

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Jason is an avid homebrewer and has been a board member of the Columbus Ohio based homebrew club SODZ for three years, serving as President for two of those years. He is a contributing writer for Zymurgy magazine. Jason also co-founded a craft beer appreciation group Have Another which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.