Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

The Great Barrel-Aged Beer Festival in Hayward, CA.

By William Brand
Wednesday, November 8th, 2006 at 8:15 pm in Uncategorized.

Caption: Bistro Proprietor Victor Kralj gets ready for the first-ever
Barrel Aged Beer Festival Saturday, Nov. 11. He expects 42 beers,
each aged in wooden barrels or on wood. Barrel-aged beers tend to
be dark and quite strong. But they also take on notes of the contents
of the barrel: bourbon, Scotch, wine, port, brandy or if a new barrel
is used, the vanilla flavors of new oak.
Credit: ARIC CRABB/MediaNews

By William Brand

Oakland Tribune/MediaNews Group

The newest thing in the craft beer movements is at least 500 years old. No lie.

It’s barrel-aged beer, that is beer that is fermented and aged in wooden barrels. And this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006, Vic and Cynthia Kralj, proprietors of The Bistro, 1001 B St. in downtown Hayward, CA, (510) 886-8525, are holding a Barrel-Aged Beer Festival. It’s the first festival of its kind on the West Coast and apparently only the second ever held in the United States. Tickets, which are sold at the door, are $25, including a commemorative glass and 10, two-ounce tastes. The fun begins at noon and the festival runs until 5 p.m.

More in a minute, first a bit of background: Historians say the Romans discovered wooden barrels in Gaul (now France) and began to use them in the 3rd century CE. According to the Wikipedia, barrels, sealed with pitch, were used them to carry liquids like oil and wine.
With a few exceptions, mostly in Belgium and England, wooden barrels have been abandoned by brewers in favor of steel. Steel barrels can be sterilized and don’t pick up unfavorable bacteria which can spoil beer in a heartbeat.

But today, adventuresome craft brewers are looking back to the past. The idea of aging beer in wooden barrels in the ancient fashion intrigues them and – from the consumer’s standpoint – aging a beer, especially a strong beer, in a wine, brandy, port or bourbon barrel can add a stunning dimension to the brew.

However, Most barrel-aged beer being made today is fermented in standard fashion with regular brewers yeast, then placed in wooden barrels to age. But a few barrel-aged beers in The Bistro’s lineup Saturday have been fermented with wild yeast. There’s a reason for that.

Craft brewers who have visited Belgium have had their minds blown by Lambic beer, made around Brussels in the Senne River Valley. Lambics are fermented with wild yeast – the little beasties that float in the air around us and fermented in the ancient fashion in wooden barrels. Beer these days is fermented with cultivated yeast that is predictable and certain.

Caption: Lambic beer aging in barrels in
Credit: Wikipedia

Wild yeast, on the other hand, is a wild card. Literally anything can happen, not always good. Then, old barrels often contain many kinds of bacteria, which can change a beer even further. But when the system works, the beer is amazing: tart, sometimes sour, perfect at the end of the day.

You can find a discussion of Lambic beer here and here.

Brewers are doing some amazing things. For instance, one of the beers that will be on tap Saturday comes from 21st Amendment in San Francisco. “We’re calling it “Watermelon Funk,” brewer, co-founder Shaun O’Sullivan says. Watermelon Wheat, is made with a blend of wheat and barley with real watermelon added as the beer is made.

This one will be different. “We took some up to Russian River (Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa) and Vinnie (Brewer, Russian River co-founder Vinnie Cilurzo) pitched it with bret (brettamyces or wild yeast) then put it in a Chardonnay wine barrel.

Watermelon Funk is one of 42 beers that – at last – count Vic Kralj expects to be on tap Saturday. He explains that the idea began when he was sitting around with Rodger Davis, the head brewer at Drake’s in San Leandro, CA, drinking a Drake’s been that Rodger aged in a bourbon barrel. “I love the stuff, it smells like you’re drinking bourbon, but it’s beer,” Kralj said.

Then, he went to the World Beer Cup in Seattle this past spring and he noticed that every craft brewer had a barrel-aged beer and he thought, `You know what. We should have a barrel-aged beer festival.”

The only festival he’s aware of was held in Chicago, so, he thought, why not.

Why not indeed. Salud.

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