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Monday, September 26, 2011

Brewing with oak barrels at Vivant: Revisiting funky tensions in craft brewing

Why old, bacteria-laden wood barrels still enjoy positions of privilege in modern, state-of-the-art brewing operations.

A little age on it
By Weston Eaton

In anticipation of Brewery Vivant’s upcoming Wood-Aged Beer Celebration (October 22, 1-9pm), I spent an afternoon visiting brewers Jacob Derylo and Brian Kuszynski and their beloved Jack Daniels oak barrels. While sampling and discussing the features of Vivant wood-aged and especially oak-aged beers, it soon became apparent that along with the brewers, the barrels too were living entities capable of deciding the fate of future batches of beer. Like people, and unlike stainless steel fermenters, oak barrels breath and are alive. Literally, they are full of bacteria. Living organisms such as Brettanomyces and a multitude of others impart unique qualities when beer is aged inside. Further animating the barrels, the brewers, particularly Kuszynski, names each in alphabetical order after both real and imagined women. (Their first barrel, Angelina, is still in use today.) Also like other sentient beings, barrels show resistance. They refuse to be quantified and controlled as their processes happen on their own terms. Barrels, then, have their own agency, despite attempts by the brewers to wield control.

Brewing with wood is labor intensive. Holding 55 gallons of beer, oak barrels are bulky, difficult to get beer into and out of, and must be stored with beer in them at all times lest they dry out. Taking a walk around Vivant’s brand new production facility, I am startled by the contrast between shiny, mechanical, industrial equipment and sweaty, earthy, old-world oak barrels. While the large fermenters, tanks, and brewhouse all fit nicely, the barrels are stacked tightly in the few spaces that remain, evidence of their ongoing struggle for priority and legitimacy in the production facility. Essential to quality control in a brewery is cleanliness, which calls for seemingly endless bouts of sanitation procedures. Working with wood therefore requires its own approach. To allow porous, living barrels into the brewery makes this task increasingly challenging, demonstrating the strain between craft and more intensive production methods.

As Derylo explains, if using wood to produce a beer, one must work on the barrel’s schedule and be prepared to concede a little human authority: “We taste [the beer] every week; that way we can control it a little bit more. When its ready to go its ready to go. We listen to the beer, the beer tells us when its ready...you just trust your barrels, see what happens with them.”

Derylo, explaining
This raised a couple questions in my mind. Why allow such unpredictability, such uncertainty into the brewery? Why would a brewer intentionally yield technical and scientific advancement to unpredictable natural processes? How does a barrel gain a brewers trust? The answer, I believe, is tied to the dialectical tension between control and creativity found within the essential nature of the craft brewing endeavor.

In one sense, we might say that brewing a craft beer on any marketable scale is a bit paradoxical. The word "craft" implies uniqueness, individuality, distinctiveness, and also one-of-a-kind-like rarity, exclusivity, and even luxury, as in things produced under a guild program where from start to finish, each product is produced by a single artisan. A crucial element here too is time. Under a guild regime, individual artisans decide when they need to work, as opposed to prescribed and disciplined work schedules. The word craft therefore implies a lack of standardization, for both beers and brewers, as standardization is a process of duplication, not creation.

In reality, the closest thing to pre-capitalist beer production practices is home brewing, where the only constraints on beer production are skill, knowledge, access to resources, and creativity. The result of course is an infinite range of products, none of which make it to the formal market. While home brewing provides inspiration, in the professional market brewery success necessarily parallels increases in rational efficiency. Yet while the efficiency of a truly craft production model is unrealistic today, it is the ideals associated with craft production that drive hype, craze, and beer-geekyness in consumers, but also brewer innovation and ingenuity in recipe development and marketing. For instance, while there are other measures of success in the world of craft brewing (consistency and sales being strong contenders), those who succeed in producing beers that are (or appear to be) rare, exclusive, single-batch, and unstandardized often receive high recognition from beer fans and provide the highest notoriety for brewers and breweries.

Jake & Brian, with barrels
While this might help illustrate the undergirding drive for craft authenticity that sends ingenious brewers back through the annuls of fermentation history to find an overlooked muse, or into related fields, such as culinary arts, for untapped inspiration, Derylo explains his attraction to oak barrels as derived from personal taste as well as from the nature of Vivant itself. Why does he choose to brew with oak? “Because we love wood-aged beer. It fits into what we’re trying to do down here. We’re a strictly Belgian brewery, so sours, Geuzes [an un-fruited lambic blend] fit right into that category. We’re trying to be small enough so we can do stuff like this.”

Vivant’s wood-aged beers can be divided into two categories, one featuring the dry, vanilla-like character of oak, and the other featuring the astringent funk of Brettanomyces. When added directly to a used whiskey barrel, the beer absorbs the booze from the wood as well as the wood's character, providing a complex depth that’s constantly changing over time but also on your palate. While I was treated to many samples straight from the barrel, my favorite from this category was already on tap, a barrel-aged Triumph, a truly global Belgian/English/American IPA hybrid.

Used once to impart its oaky essence, the brewers then reuse the barrel for another batch, this time inoculating the barrel with an extra dose of Brettanomyces. Cassandra Rose (from their third barrel), a dark brown Brune with rosehips, was my favorite beer from this second category--it resembled a classic funky Flanders sour ale. This beer, the aforementioned oak-aged IPA, and several oak-aged porters, Saisons, Abby Ales, spiced ales, ciders, fruit beers and special blends will all be on tap October 22nd. Come on over to Vivant and taste for yourself the fuzzy line between consistency and uniqueness, standardization and craft.


Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, the great beer city of the great beer state.

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