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The process of creating barrel-aged beers is equal parts craftsmanship and science, an art that is both immensely time consuming and intensely rewarding for us as brewers. We purchased our first barrel in 2010, a bourbon barrel, and it turned 53 gallons of Chocolate Porter into our first ever batch of Barrel Roll #1 – Immelmann. We’ve come a long way since then.

The Hangar 24 barrelhouse is located across town from our brewery, and is home to somewhere between 200 and 300 barrels of beer at any given time- that’s enough to fill 170,000 12oz bottles on the upper end. Within our barrelhouse we separate our projects into two main categories: Spirits Barrel Aging, and Souring. Both involve creating beers through the use of oak barrels, but the processes involved are different:

  1. Spirits Barrel Aged beers are finished beers before they go into the barrel, and the goal is to extend and develop this finished beer through time in a spirits barrel, with the final result being an incredibly decadent, sweet, high-abv beer fit for a special occasion.
  2. The other side of the barrelhouse is our Sour Program. Sour barrel aging is the transformation of an unremarkable, simple base beer into a delicate, interesting and complex beverage using the three tools of the cellar- time, wild yeast/bacteria, and wood.

Choose which one you’d like to learn more about from the tabs below, and then be sure to continue on to our cellaring guide to learn how to continue aging our Barrel Roll beers at home.

At Hangar 24 we have aged beers in barrels from a wide range of major distilleries and some minor ones, and are constantly experimenting with different spirits, different distilleries, and different ideas. Our stable of barrels runs the gamut from a large stock of young bourbon barrels to freshly emptied artisan rye whiskey barrels, tequila barrels, and a new crop of quarter-century bourbon barrels.

Spirit barrels add a great many layers of complexity to finished beers. We specifically choose barrels that are freshly emptied and still damp with the alcohols which they have carried for years. Bourbon is the classic stand by, adding flavors of cherry, vanilla, toast, smoke, and the warm heat we should love and expect in such high ABV beers. We have long played with Brandy barrels as well, which add decadent flavors of dates, prunes, caramel, and vanilla to the beer. Pugachev Royale receives a double treatment, spending time in both Bourbon and Brandy barrels for a mix of flavors.  Rye Whiskey barrels are also used to an extent, as they add a spiciness and intensity to a beer similar to bourbon yet with its own unique edge. We blend a portion of rye barrels into Hammerhead each year to build more complexity into the flavor profile.

Although our main standbys are bourbon, whiskey, and brandy barrels, we’re always looking to experiment with new options. Recently breaking more and more into the market are Tequila and Rum barrels, which add new flavors to the mix. Most of these barrels are actually retired bourbon barrels, broken down, shipped, and reassembled at the various distilleries. It’s not uncommon to peel off a tequila distillery label only to find a head stamp of your favorite bourbon producer underneath. As barrel aging becomes more popular, the fight for the best barrels becomes more competitive. Long gone are the days of rolling up to a distillery and having them fill your truck with free barrels; securing a prized barrel for our warehouse is a constant effort, but one that’s well worth it.

Laying a beer down in an oak barrel isn’t storage, it’s an incredibly active process. As each beer develops in the barrel, we're constantly tasting and evaluating its progress. Kegged or bottled beer will age, but it’s isolated within a non-breathable container, and won’t pick up new characteristics due to the neutral properties of stainless steel and glass. Oak spirits barrels literally breathe. Throughout the year, as temperatures fluctuate in our barrel warehouse, the oak staves in the barrel expand and contract, sucking up the beer and squeezing it back out. The barrel becomes soaked in beer, and as the liquid in the barrel moves in and out of the wood it fully absorbs oaky flavors of vanilla and the heat and vibrancy of the spirits which previously occupied the barrel. The porous nature of the oak allows oxygen to come into contact with the beer, causing a slow, controlled oxidation to take effect on the flavors and aromas. This is the same oxidation that can be undesirable in an old beer that’s been sitting on the shelf for too long. When introduced in a controlled fashion via barrel aging, it’s responsible for many of the sweet, sherry-like flavors that barrel-aged beers are known for.

Once the beer has extracted all this flavor from the barrel, that barrel’s work is done, and other than a select few which are re-purposed in our sour program, most barrels are sold to our Tasting Room guests for some amazing craft projects. 

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If a Barrel-aged beer evolves and deepens in the barrel, a sour beer is born in the barrel. All of our sours begin from similar base beers, usually a low ABV, low bitterness ale with specifically designed malt bills. The malts are chosen to give these beers a large amount of very specific fermentable sugars, which will be consumed by the assortment of wild yeasts and bacteria added to the beers, or available naturally on fruit or in the oak. These wild organisms slowly mature the beer, giving us acidity, funk, fruitiness, and tart, often bracingly sour flavors that make sour beer lovers’ mouths water. In a sense, you could say that sour beer isn’t “brewed,” but is truly created within the barrel.

For sour beers we currently use two main types of barrels: Sauvignon Blanc wine barrels for our blonde sour base, and Burgundy wine barrels for our sour red base. As years pass and new batches of base beer are added, the living yeasts and bacteria in each barrel cause beer placed within to take on a completely unique character, as the organisms inside evolve. The wood in the barrels absorbs this ecosystem, and as sour barrels are used and re-used for decades they develop unique and reliable characteristics that come into play when choosing which barrel to put a new beer in. Some Belgian breweries still produce sour beers using barrels that have been in service since before World War 2.

While the beer is fermenting in our barrelhouse, work continues back at the brewery in our fully equipped laboratory. This lab is where we culture the wild yeast and bacteria for our sour beers, building a yeast bank with a depth and breadth of different flavor profiles. One beer may call for funky and pastoral flavors, while another may benefit from a fruitier profile or increased the bite of increased acetic acid. These are the variables which having a yeast bank helps us control, and can all be accomplished by using the proper wild yeast and bacteria for each beer.

We also constantly pull sample from the barrels, monitoring the beer as it ferments. We check pH and measure titratable acidity to get a better idea of the level of acidic flavor developing in each barrel, and monitor the gravity of the beer using a digital density meter, finding the maximum attenuation (conversion of sugars into alcohol) that the yeast will accomplish. All of this work ensures that each barrel is healthy, and developing into the beer that we want it to be.

Most sour beers we will release in the future will be blended from multiple barrels. Because of the uniqueness of each barrel, we keep a constantly revolving stock of our two base sour beers: one a blonde ale, one a red ale. As we prepare to release a new sour beer, we pull samples from every barrel of the base beer we wish to use, and evaluate how they have each developed. The most unique barrels, those that beg for special treatment, are set aside to be used for ultra-limited, single barrel releases. The rest of the mature barrels are used for the final step of sour beer creation, the step which is most human and requires the most finesse: blending.

The final blending of a sour beer is a process that requires a finely tuned palate and a vision for the possibilities that lie within a beer. We know what we want our final beers to taste like from the outset, but it’s unlikely that any one individual barrel is going to taste like the final beer should, and so we blend. A barrel with layers of deliciously funky aromas but little sourness can perfectly balance a barrel which tastes bracingly sour but has little aroma. This is where our best palates are brought in, to evaluate every single barrel on its own merit, and decide which barrels will be used to build the final beer, piece by piece.

For a fruited sour like our Chandelle, we want a beer that perfectly complements the delicate, slightly earthy flavors and aromas of the delicious Golden Sweet apricots which serve as the final addition to the beer. We targeted a bright acidity and intense white wine flavors, and selected 10 barrels from our stock that all added different elements to the blend. Not too funky, not too sweet- a dry base upon which we knew 850lbs of fresh fruit could build.

2015 will be the year we reap the fruits of our renewed sour beer efforts, and we can’t wait to begin unveiling some of the projects currently in the works here in our barrelhouse.

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All of our Barrel Roll beers are ready to drink at bottling, but will also continue developing in your home cellar. Over time beer will undergo a variety of changes, one of which is oxidation, or changes in flavor due to exposure to oxygen. Even sealed beer bottles aren’t completely airtight, and so the liquid within is very slowly being exposed to the oxygen we breath.  You’ll find that different flavors and characteristics will come to the forefront, as others fade with age. All of these changes are personal preference, and although there are some styles that are common to cellar (stouts, sours) and some that are not (IPAs, fruit beers), there’s no way to know what your palate will enjoy until you do it yourself. Cellaring beer is a long-term experiment, and a great adventure for someone who wants to learn more about how time affects different types of beer.

Starting to cellar beer at home is incredibly easy, and a great way to start building up a collection of beer for special occasions. Here are some tips for picking a place to store your Barrel Rolls and other cellarable beers:

  • Storing your cellared beer upright is preferable to laying it down, but either option is acceptable if you have space concerns.
  • Ensure that light is not reaching the beers - UV rays in light can cause off-flavors over time, even indirect light and through dark glass.
  • The ideal temperature for a beer cellar is around 50-60 degrees. Try to pick an area which is as close to this temperature range as possible, and doesn’t undergo large fluctuations throughout the year. Nice, steady temperatures allow the beer to age gracefully and consistently. A sealed box or Styrofoam cooler in your closet or in a corner of your basement is a great place to start.
  • All of the reactions involved in aging beer are a factor of temperature and time. An increase in temperature of 10 degrees Celsius will cause a beer to develop aged flavors 2-3x faster. This means that if you place your Barrel Rolls in the refrigerator, they will change very, very slowly and the flavors and aromas will stay fairly consistent even after a year or more. Cellaring beer as described above is the happy middle ground, allowing the beer to age and change gracefully at a steady, controlled rate. As temperatures get higher and higher from there, the rate of change grows quickly, and soon you’ll have beer that is starting to taste more “old” than “aged.” No one likes old beer.

If you’ve ever pulled out a nice bottle of wine that you’d been saving for just the right occasion, imagine doing the same with a bottle of our Pugachev’s Cobra- and then finding that the beer has actually evolved in the year since you opened your last bottle, surprising you with new flavors that you hadn’t picked up on the first time. Or you can save a bottle from each year, opening it alongside the next year’s release (this is called a vertical tasting) to compare how the beer changes throughout the years. Next time you’re sharing a bottle of a Barrel Roll from your cellar for a special occasion, send us a picture and let us know how the beer is tasting! We always love seeing cellar successes and hearing stories of adventures in cellaring beer.

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