Roll out the barrels

Anthony Gladman uncovers the international trade in wooden casks


I had a close encounter with a sherry butt the other day. Stood upright on its end, the great cask came to about chest height on me. All around me towered racks of smaller wine and spirits barrels, made of bright clean new oak. In contrast, the sherry butt was dark, old, weathered and beaten. I almost walked right past it until I saw that it was open, its top end removed and placed inside. I stopped and stuck my nose into the empty barrel and inhaled the aroma left behind by the long-gone liquid. The barrel's staves filled my field of vision, radiating outwards from its base like rays from the sun. Memories and snatches of sensation flitted before my inner eye and were gone in an instant. Such is the power of aroma to play with our minds.

Barrels are more than mere vessels for holding liquid. They lend character to a drink. In some cases – think wine, whisky or brandy – they complete it. The oak imparts flavours of creamy vanilla, coconut and spice, as much a part of the drinks as are the flavours from the grapes or grains from which they're made. Barrels can also do something much more magical: they can remember. A cask can take flavours from one drink and lend them to another, but it can also go the other way; for example some distillers finish their whiskies in beer barrels. The flavours leave their mark as they wash from one drink to another. Sometimes the end result is obvious: think stout that comes with its own whisky chaser built right in. Sometimes it's more subtle, like sensing the presence of someone who left the room moments before you entered it. But either way, it wouldn't exist without the drink spending time in a barrel.

This need for barrels is one thing producers of beer, cider, wine and spirits all have in common. The trade in used barrels underpins the production of some of the world's best drinks. Yet most people know nothing about it. When we buy our barrel-aged beers, how many of us stop to picture the actual barrel involved? If you're one of those who does, what sort of barrel do you imagine?

Because there's more than one type of barrel. And although I've been calling them barrels this whole time, like some sort of filthy casual, they all have their own specific names. Budding pedants take note: these cylindrical wooden vessels that bulge in the middle are actually called casks. A 'barrel' is a cask of a particular size and shape. Dig into the subject and you will find some fantastic names for different types of cask: tuns and butts, drums and puncheons, tierces, rundlets, gordas, kilderkins, firkins, hogsheads, barriques, tubs, pins and even minipins.

Why are bourbon barrels so popular?

There's one type of barrel that brewers use more often than most to give their beer a bit more pizzazz. If you're fond of the big-flavoured, barrel-aged stouts that tend to do well on Untappd, you'll know it's bourbon. (These ones are actually called barrels, by the way. Bourbon comes from the USA, so these are ASBs, or American Standard Barrels.) Have you ever wondered why they are so popular? It's not the flavour alone, although that is definitely a plus. Brewers like bourbon barrels because they are plentiful and thus cheap. Laws governing its production mean bourbon distillers must mature their whiskey in fresh barrels not used ones. This means there are lots and lots of barrels coming out of the bourbon distilleries, all looking for a new home.

One man who has handled plenty of bourbon barrels in his time is Jonny Hamilton. "You can get them cheap if you get them direct," he tells me. Jonny manages the Tempus Project at Beavertown Brewery. There he makes Beavertown's mixed-fermentation and barrel-aged beers. Jonny has, in the past, arranged to have entire shipping containers full of barrels sent across the Atlantic. He splits these orders, for 200 barrels at $50 a piece, with up to three other UK breweries. As you might imagine, being head of a brewery barrel programme, Jonny needs a lot of barrels. He has 300 or so, ranging from 200-litre bourbon barrels up to 5,000-litre foudres. The brewery takes in an average of 50 barrels a year, but doesn't hold onto them all. "Bourbon barrels we tend to only use once," Jonny tells me. "Then we'll either use them for decoration at the new brewery or sell them on to people."

Why take this single-use approach?

Jonny explains that the first fill into a bourbon barrel is usually straightforward. There's plenty of fresh bourbon flavour, and this will infuse into the beer within six to twelve months. The beer can withstand this amount of time in the wood with little risk of infection or oxidation. And it also gets some protection from the alcohol in the residual bourbon. The problem is that this first fill strips much of the flavour from the barrel. Any beers put in after that will need to stay in longer to reap the same benefit. "You sometimes need to age the same beer for two years, then you're getting the barrel character back again but you're also risking acetaldehyde formation, soy sauce flavours if it's something on the yeast, general oxidation character, acetic potentially..."

So bourbon barrels are OK for a cheap 'n' cheerful flavour hit, particularly for big beers that don't mind a bit of ageing. But for anything else, if for example you're after something more delicate than a huge boozy stout, they're not ideal.

A look at the barrel brokers

Breweries use all sorts of barrels. The best ones collect them like instruments in an orchestra from which they can construct symphonies of flavour. But it takes time to find the best barrels from wine and spirits producers all over the world, and effort to shepherd them into your brewery. Time and effort that could be spent making beer. Enter the barrel brokers; companies like Wilhelm Eder in Germany, J. Dias cooperage in Portugal, ASC in France or Speyside Cooperage in Scotland specialise in supplying new, used or refurbished barrels to the drinks trades.

ASC is the company of twinkly-eyed French charmer Alexandre Sakon, a former winemaker and merchant. He first learnt what barrels could do to a drink 25 years ago while working with white burgundy wines. "The wine was too green, too acidic," he recalls. Ageing it in fresh barrels didn't help as this imparted too much oak flavour that simply overpowered the wine. "We needed to refine," he says. And so began the process of learning about wood and its interactions with wine and other drinks; a process that led him to where he is today. Now he sells barrels to producers all over the world, including about 300 breweries, of which 170 are in the UK.

With its team of 15 skilled coopers, ASC specialises in building barrels suited to each producer's needs. The aim is to help producers achieve a consistent end-product each time they age a beer, cider, wine or spirit. "The time of experimentation is over," Alexandre tells me. "Barrel ageing used to be a case of using poor quality barrels and guessing, essentially; experimenting to see what would happen. But now producers' understanding and demands have developed. They want more consistency and more subtlety – not big wood flavours but complexity, structure and texture."

To this end, ASC analyses every barrel it brings into its warehouses using an on-site lab to check its microbiological profile. The coopers take the barrels apart and remove any limestone build-up. Then they shave the staves by hand and toast them again, applying anything from a light toast up to a heavy char. This reconditioning ensures the barrels will not leak and will be free from harmful bacteria. It also removes any wine tannins and sulphites that may have built up in the barrels. These two chemicals are the main enemies to a good ageing character. Sulphites for instance can leave beer with a metallic taste. Alexandre calls these barrels NEOC for New Era Of Cask.

But Alexandre doesn't want to stop at building better barrels. In April 2019, ASC hosted a Barrel Summit alongside the Bordeaux International Barrel Aged Festival. These events brought together drinks producers from 14 countries. There were representatives from 21 breweries (including the UK's Burning Sky and Moor Beer), 12 distilleries, two wineries, and four distributors, plus special guest experts. They met to further 'the mutual and perpetual exchange of experience and knowledge between producers and providers'.

Those attending also had the chance to become Masters of Barrels, members of a new MOB Society. There was even an initiation ceremony presided over by two Grand Masters, one brewer and one distiller. Initiates donned a red satin cloak and knelt before them to speak their oath. The Grand Masters used a paddle made from a barrel stave to tap each one on the shoulders, like the queen dubbing a knight with her sword. The paddle bore the words 'In wood we trust'. In one way, it's just a bit of fun, much like the barrel rolling competition earlier that afternoon. A chance to dick about after a long day of lectures. But that's OK by me. Anything that brings drinks producers together has a chance to benefit drinkers. This all lays the foundations for future collaborations.

The flow of casks from one producer to another supports the flow of complex, fascinating drinks into our eager hands. The flow of knowledge between producers enhances this current of creativity. Maturing drinks in casks brings together the pinnacles of brewing, cider making, winemaking and distilling. It is where these various trades commingle and cross-fertilise; where the drinks get really good. For that reason I hope the MOB Society is a success. A cross-industry forum like this will benefit every drinker, no matter what their preferred poison might be. If that's not an excuse to roll out the barrel then I don't know what is.

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