By Matt Van Wyk, Brewmaster of Oakshire Brewing
As the craft beer industry continues it’s meteoric rise through the adult beverage category, one can’t help notice the scores and scores of specialty, one-off, rare, barrel aged beers being produced across the country. Whether you are a fan of Three Floyd’s Dark Lord or Portsmouth’s Kate the Great or you regularly receive shipments from the Bruery, you know what I am talking about. If you trade HotD for Surly’s Darkness or Lost Abbey’s Cable Car for Cigar City’s Hunahpu Imp. Stout, you have an idea what I mean. The amount of special collectible beers is growing out of control, and I know because I raided my cellar over the Thanksgiving Holiday and the 15 awesome beers I pulled out barely left a dent. (I have a slight issue with saving beer though). At Oakshire, we have begun two series of barrel aged beers, Hellshire, which is our spirits barrel aged series of beers and Brewers Reserve, which is very small quantity, mostly wild beers aged in wine barrels. Skookumchuck, our first release blended wild ale and a Eugene Water and Electric Board Centennial Celebration beer, was released on November 18th and will make a brief appearance Thursday December 15th at Belmont Station. These beers will mostly be sold out of the tasting room as our friends at Upright do with their Sole Composition series beers.
So, as someone who not only makes some of the beers mentioned above, but is also a big fan of collecting them and enjoying at special moments, I wanted to make a few comments about what I am seeing in our little industry. First of all, to the comment I hear so often, “I don’t know why you don’t make Beer X year round, you’d make a killing!” Well, the three things you need for barrel aged beers is 1) space to age them, 2) time to age them, and 3) money up front to buy a load of barrels that won’t see a return on for several months. Of course space is a big issue. Everyone is growing like crazy and if you don’t have a spot to set the barrels when you could drop a tank that can turn beer 12 times before those barrels get sold, you aren’t going to make the investment. Secondly, the brewing industry is a small margin endeavor. You need cash flow to keep going and keep growing. Just ask any start up around the country and they can probably back me there. That speaks to both time and money. At Oakshire we are constantly looking for more space to set barrels and I’m fighting off the sales and administration departments letting them know that they are just not ready yet. Our 50 or so barrels we currently have just don’t seem to be enough. And finally, I’d argue that beers that you can find on the shelf for 6 months at a time have slightly less “shine” to them. Most breweries are not trying to keep these beers out of reach for that reason, it’s just that the aforementioned time and money get in the way. The fact that the scarcity makes it valued is a bonus for the brewery.
Next, when we are talking barrel aging, don’t forget that you have just introduced one gigantic variable. Each barrel is different, from the type of oak used, the spirit that was in it, when it was emptied, and how it was handled once emptied. When a beer that is released every year, let’s say Deschutes Abyss, tastes slightly different, perhaps a different barrel caused this (or perhaps Deschutes changes the recipe, so maybe that was a bad example). Let’s say when someone makes a barleywine at one brewery and then makes another barleywine with different barrels, you are inevitably going to have variation. Since we aren’t always sure what is going to come out after aging, we can’t always be sure how it will be recieved. I had that scenario with a beer that I made a mere 35 cases of, called Wooden Hell. When Hellshire at Oakshire just didn’t have the same magic as the tiny volume beer that nobody could get, many were left scratching their head. Not me. Different brewery, different water, different barrels, different beer. It happens.
Also, the brewers hand at packaging time should not be overlooked. Any brewery that is large enough to blend barrels into a tank has a leg up on others who have to just sell what is in a single barrel. We are fortunate to now have a wild blending tank that we lovingly call Chunk. Well, the Boneyard folks we bought it from named it, but this ugly little tank serves a huge purpose in that I can now do some blending of wild beers to get a different acidity level or flavor profile each time. For Skookumchuck, I was able to blend five Pinot barrels that held a Belgian Strong Ale, a Farmhouse Ale with apricots, and a wheat ale all aged on various strains of Brettanomyces and Lacto. It makes a huge difference in complexity. Of course, the masters of this are the lambic brewers who blend one, two, and three year old beers to get the most amazing wild beers you can find. But, in our country, one of the best at this is Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker. If you have tried any of their anniversary beers, you’ll know that he is a master of blending some of the best of his spirits barrel aged beers to produce something amazing. Also, those who were able to attend Portland’s Holiday Ale fest know that his Velvet Merkin was the talk of the fest for a reason. I’d love to sit in on a tasting session at FW for their next anniversary. Blending barrels makes for better beer.
Finally, I know there is a lot of talk regarding increased pricing with specialty beers. There are certainly people who are going to take advantage of our current times and come dangerously close to gouging, but the consumer does need to realize that there is a LOT of cost into these beers, not to mention the time and space issues. Usually, when you are making a special beer, the beer cost is the first factor. Bagged and imported specialty pale malt rather than silo 2-row drives the price up. Extra Hops or spices, the barrels themselves, a wild yeast, and fruit are all costs that differentiate these beers from the year round offerings. Then there is the aging piece. I’ve yet to have anyone quantify how much it cost to age a beer, but again you are taking up space and time when a brewery could be earning money on that square footage. The one thing many people overlook as well is the labor hours needed to get a beer into barrels, jockey it around to storage, and then pull it out of the barrel, carbonate it and package it. When there is some automation involved, it can be easier. We recently got a Bulldog barrel racker to pull beer out of the barrels and that saved loads of time, but we still had to hand bottle the Skookumchuck. 70 cases in an 8 hour day is not really efficient. Barrel aged beers are made for the passion of beer, not for the wise business sense of it. If $15 or $20 seems steep for a barrel aged rare beer, know that there was a lot of effort involved in getting that beer to your hand. And if it’s quality and taste don’t seem to match the price you paid, don’t judge the brewery for that. People can’t set prices only on ‘how good’ something is. Costs involved in producing it will always be examined first. I hope. That’s why you see beers from Breweries like New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series being so much more reasonably priced. They have an economy of scale that a brewer like Upright or Block 15 just doesn’t have. One day, when we have an automated like with a cork and cager, we won’t be filling at 15 cases per hour and hopefully our beer pricing will reflect that.
In conclusion, I feel fortunate to not only be able to create crazy new beers that people really enjoy, but I’m also glad I live in a time where so many rare and one-off beers are readily available to me. Hopefully a few of the points mentioned above ring true when you are scraping away the thick wax (who would do such a thing?) or twisting off the cage and popping a cork. We certainly live in wonderful beery times…… Cheers!