Alchemy of booze and barrels irresistible for local beverage makers

For many who brew beer, distill spirits or ferment grapes into wine, barrels can be a crucial component — one that can transform the beverage from something already good to something downright magical.

Just ask Scott Hovey, the founder and brewmaster of Adelbert’s Brewery. He wanted a thriving barrel program to be a focal point of his North Austin brewery ever since stepping foot into Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. years ago and admiring the walls of barrels in the tasting room. But there and at his own brewery, barrels are far more than just a striking wooden backdrop.

“Barrels, with their oak notes and other flavors, can add such a great complexity and elevate a beer to being even better than it was on its own,” Hovey says.

That makes the wooden vessels a hot commodity these days, especially with cooperages — or barrel makers — barely able to carve them as fast as breweries, distilleries and wineries are buying them up. Producers have the edge, with the space and the money to stack them up in rows hundreds of barrels deep, leaving the smaller craft businesses to find barrels where they can — often from among themselves.

For Hovey and others like Jester King Brewery, that’s not an altogether bad thing. The dash for barrels, though intense and getting worse, at least results in one thing that’s long been a hallmark of the alcoholic beverage industry, especially brewers: a desire to help each other out and collaborate on projects they otherwise wouldn’t be able to try.

Case in point is Adelbert’s and Treaty Oak Distilling. The two beverage makers — former neighbors in North Austin, before the distillery moved south to a Dripping Springs ranch — have worked out a handy trade. Adelbert’s used to make Treaty Oak a whiskey wash that Treaty Oak would then distill and age to turn into bourbon; in return, the distillery would provide Adelbert’s with the barrels that had previously aged its rum, gin and whiskey.

Treaty Oak, which is currently installing its own whiskey fermenters, no longer needs the whiskey wash but still gives Adelbert’s the much-needed barrels. They house beers like Adelbert’s Contemplating Waterloo, a gin-barrel-aged saison bursting with notes of floral lavender and crisp citrus; and Tripel Treat, a rum-barrel-aged tripel that’s full of fruity, buttery oak and a warming booziness. These beers have helped to define Adelbert’s as a nuanced producer of Belgian-style brews.

The barrels have already had a hearty lifespan before reaching Adelbert’s, however. They’re made for Treaty Oak by Independent Stave, a barrel-making company founded in 1912, and the Dripping Springs distillery continues to have big plans for them.

In the coming months, visit Treaty Oak’s sprawling Hill Country ranch to taste unusual elixirs like a pineapple brandy, distilled from new neighbor Argus Cidery’s Tepache and aged in Treaty Oak rum barrels, as well as a Scotch-like whiskey made from Adelbert’s Scratchin’ Hippo beer wash — made without hops and aged in Treaty Oak gin barrels. “I don’t think we’ll ever stop playing around with different whiskeys,” Treaty Oak owner Daniel Barnes says.

But Adelbert’s and Treaty Oak are far from the only local alcohol producers that find that alchemy of beverage and barrel irresistible.

The new Kooper Family Rye distillery has found homes for each of its once-used American white oak barrels, giving them to breweries like Black Star Co-op and Twisted X Brewing for barrel-aging. Jester King Brewery has provided Revolution Spirits a barrel that previously aged RU-55, a farmhouse red ale, for its Single Barrel Series. And Becker Vineyards, one of Texas’ most established wineries, has sourced out barrels to places like Jester King for further use.

The lifespan of a barrel

One of the best examples of keeping barrels local is the collaboration between Garrison Brothers Distillery, Dulce Vida Tequila and Twisted X. Because Garrison Brothers makes bourbon — a whiskey that by law can only be aged in new charred oak barrels — the distillery has lots of those wooden casks to sell.

Some of them go to Dulce Vida Tequila, an Austin-based company that puts a lot of stock in the types of barrels used to age its tequila in Mexico. Its extra añejo, for example, matured entirely in red wine barrels from California, which imparted it not only with oak notes but also a roundness to the body and a delicate cognac-like nose from the wine that had soaked into the barrels.

That’s one big reason why alcohol producers seek out barrels that have already aged wine, spirits or beer. The essence of the previous liquid often influences the one after it — and the result can be a marvel to taste.

Once Garrison bourbon had aged in 10-gallon American oak barrels, they were passed along to Dulce Vida for the special edition Lone Star añejo, full of cinnamon and spice and agave sweetness. But the barrels didn’t retire there. Dulce Vida sent them to Twisted X to make an imperial black lager called Señor Viejo, the brewery’s booziest beer at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume. That combination of whiskey, tequila and oak produced a rich vanilla-forward brew softened by a hint of agave, the latest version of which is out now.

Many barrel-aging programs use the wooden vessels over and over again, although after a barrel’s third use — as with Señor Viejo — alcohol producers will tell you it’s now become neutral and no longer adds additional flavors from oak or previous liquids. However, it’s hardly about to be turned into a pile of firewood — not least because barrels are very expensive. Neutral oak barrels can be just as important to barrel-aging as newer barrels for the sake of balance; they’ll be mixed in at many wineries, distilleries and breweries among the younger ones.

Beers, barrels and bugs

One Hill Country brewery prefers them neutral. Jester King sources its barrels from a variety of wineries, including Becker Vineyards, long after they’ve lost their unpocked wood look. They sit in a large, temperature-controlled space behind the tasting room, stacked up in tight rows to collect dust.

“It’s a very hands-off process,” founder Jeff Stuffings says. “We put wort (unfermented beer) in a barrel and see what happens to it.”

For good reason, of course. Jester King relies on one other main ingredient in the barrels that needs only time and the right temperature to get to work on producing a funky farmhouse ale: the bacteria and yeast that live within the wood. Even barrels resting side by side with the same beer inside them won’t taste exactly the same “because of the different combinations of microbes and microflora.”

“There’s a lot that goes into giving our beer a sense of place that’s unique to the land, such as using well water and local malt. But the No. 1 aspect would be using the microflora that’s around us,” Stuffings says. “Over the years, we’ve cultured microflora from plants, berries, flowers — even straight out of the air — to produce this mixed culture.”

To ensure consistency with each batch of farmhouse ales produced — as well as the spontaneously fermented beers that are in the works — Adrienne Ballou, head of Jester King’s barrel program, is in charge of blending the barrels. Of anyone there, she knows each barrel particularly well, its flavor tendencies and quirks, and has come to regard them “as children I have to keep an eye on,” she says. “I’ve developed a personal relationship with the barrels. I have my favorites and the ones I hate.”

Although Jester King doesn’t often part with these beloved barrels, neighboring Revolution Spirits secured one to age the second batch of its Single Barrel gin. The gin, which is taking on a subtle fruitiness, has been maturing for six months now and has a little more time to go, distiller Brian Meola says.

“This whole series is about the barrels themselves and the character we get from each of them, so we want something significant,” he says. “The gin’s still a work in progress. But it’ll get there.”

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