Barrel-Aged Beer in the Bronx

By Niko Krommydas / Photography By Matt Furman | January 03, 2017
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New York City’s booming brewery scene extends to the Bronx: the Bronx Brewery, Chelsea Craft Brewing Co. and Gun Hill Brewing Co. have all opened production facilities in the borough in recent years, helping to revive the city’s proud brewing tradition. 

Many local operations, including the Bronx’s three, are aging their beers in wooden barrels, a centuries-old practice used before the invention of metal kegs and stainless-steel tanks and revived over the last decade by a growing group of craft brewers nationwide. But this return to wood involves a new objective: Used containers that formerly held whiskey, wine or other alcoholic beverages are being employed, in the belief that their lingering flavors can add complexity to a beer, enhancing its aroma and taste.

The Bronx’s breweries have all developed highly interesting barrel-aging programs, and all are poised to grow in the near future.

 

BRONX BREWERY

as told by Damian Brown, head brewer

Why did you start a barrel-aging program? 

“It’s one of the most creative opportunities available to brewers to introduce unique flavors, elements and conditions to a beer. You have the character of the wood used; the inherent or introduced microflora; the wine or spirit or other liquid previously held by the barrel; and whether or not we add things like fruit. At the end of the day, it’s a romantic, fun process. And the beer, if not great, is always interesting.”

How would you describe your barrel-aging program?

“We started putting beer into barrels back in 2011, starting with our Pale Ale in bourbon barrels. Those were always really limited releases; at times as little as a barrel. As we structured our overall portfolio late last year, we also shifted our barrel program. Whereas previously the focus was on utilizing as many barrel types as possible—everything from bourbon and gin to pinot noir, mezcal and tequila—our new Bronx Barrel Reserve series will have two brands each released once a year, in 20-barrel lots into both draft and bottle. The more experimental, sporadic and lower-volume barrel-aged beers will continue, but only for our tasting room. With the Barrel Reserve series, we’ll be getting these kinds of beers out to more people.”

Latest Barrel-Aged Beer: Red, White & Boom

Alcohol by volume (ABV): 8.1%

“We have a white IPA called Boom Boom; it’s part of our B-Sides series, which is essentially our extra-limited releases. We released Boom Boom around the Fourth of July this year, and with the concept of America and fireworks it seemed appropriate to introduce some of that batch to a bunch of empty red-wine barrels. The base beer—led by soft yet slightly tart wheat and lightly toasted barley malts complemented by big floral and tropical fruit aromas and a gentle hop bitterness—spent only seven weeks aging in the wood. That introduced a nice red color and notes of strawberries, raspberries and plums to an already massively juicy Boom Boom. We also did a lot of late-addition hopping in the barrels with Citra and New Zealand variety Pacific Gem to amplify the tropical fruit nose.”

 

CHELSEA CRAFT BREWING CO.

as told by Mark Szmaida, head brewer

Why did you start a barrel-aging program? 

“After two decades of making beer at Chelsea Piers, we moved to a new facility in the Bronx last year. We’ve always done barrel aging on a small scale for fans of those beers, but I wanted to start a true barrel program at the new space where I could branch out and try things I’ve never done before. This process is an uncertain science, mainly left in the hands of the wood. I’m a traditional brewer who makes non-extreme beers as my standards, so it’s out of my comfort zone to go headfirst into a realm like this. But I think doing that is a good thing.”

How would you describe your barrel-aging program?

“I think it’ll always be a minor part of our business but a fun part that explores new concepts. We’re sourcing all wood from our longtime friends at Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery and our new neighbor Port Morris Distillery. We’re experimenting with adding wood character through the use of our hop torpedo, which we normally use to add hop aroma to a beer. By recirculating the beer through wood chips or barrel pieces under pressure, it shortens the time it normally takes sitting in stillage. So the finished beer can get to the customer quicker.”

Latest Barrel-Aged Beer: Black Dirt XXX Stout

ABV: 7.5%

“You can find a version of our Black Hole XXX Stout that sat in Warwick’s Black Dirt Bourbon barrels for three months. Each time we barrel Black Hole we only get about 12 kegs, most of which stays at our taproom or goes to festivals and our longtime accounts. In Black Dirt, Black Hole’s original chocolate and coffee notes are now accentuated with oak and bourbon along with hints of vanilla, leather and tobacco.”

 

GUN HILL BREWING CO.

as told by Dave Lopez, managing partner

Why did you start a barrel-aging program? 

“We actually did it more out of necessity than anything else. We had a production issue: We needed to move one beer out of a fermenter to brew more of another but didn’t have enough kegs to package the first completely. So we were able to get some rye whiskey and bourbon barrels and aged half the batch of that first beer, Void of Light, our export stout that won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival back in 2014. We were really happy with that outcome, so we’ve continued to barrel different beers in limited quantities like our strong ale Frosted Hop that we put in Puerto Rican moonshine [pitorro] barrels from our friends Port Morris Distillery. We’ve been putting everything we age in their pitorro barrels ever since.”

How would you describe your barrel-aging program?

“We’ve viewed barrel aging as a one-off thing that we do, never something we were totally focused on. But that’s all going to change in the near future as we’re beginning to make a wider variety of styles since we changed brewers back in March. When we hired Chris Prout, we increased the number of yeast strains we were working with and began making new-to-us styles like sours, saisons and session IPAs. We intend to grow our barrel program slowly from this point forward so that it incorporates a wider range of beers, not just our stouts. We’re open to trying to age just about anything that makes sense, and you’ll see that.”

Latest Barrel-Aged Beer: Anti-Imperialist Stout

ABV: 11.0%

“This is our rich, assertive American imperial stout. The base has the biggest malt bill of any of the beers we’ve made to this point. That gives a fruity, Black Forest Cake–like complexity in both the aroma and flavor that really benefited by aging in the Port Morris pitorro barrels. After a year, the wood has imparted a bit of a vanilla-oak taste and an incredibly silky-smooth texture. We’re releasing only a small amount in bottles in September."

“The name Anti-Imperialist is a sort of play on words. Technically speaking, the original colonists were anti-imperialists, given that they wanted to break apart from Britain and its ‘imperial’ empire that included the colonies, parts of Canada, part of Asia and the Philippines. As most know, our brand is firmly entrenched in the American Revolution since [the name] Gun Hill comes from a battle that took place near Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. So ‘in spirit’ we’ve decided to try something a little different: We’re going to take the majority of the aging beer and attempt to distill it. Then we’ll age the distilled product in oak barrels once again before bottling and serving it as a pseudo-whiskey.”

 

 

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Photo 2: Bronx Brewery
Photo 3: Bronx Brewery
Photo 4: Bronx Brewery loading up on malts
Photo 5: Gun Hill Brewery
Photo 6: Gun Hill Brewery
Article from Edible Bronx at http://ediblebronx.ediblecommunities.com/drink/barrel-aged-beer-bronx
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