Talking Barrel-Aging with Side Project and Firestone Walker

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Interesting things happen when you walk around a beer festival as a member of the press. You see things—little micro-moments and snippets of conversation between people who represent the apex of the craft brewing industry. That’s the part of an event like the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival that the average attendees aren’t really considering—that for the brewers, the opportunity to meet and schmooze with other members of their industry is just as big an attraction as the beer or public interaction.

And so, there I was on the morning of the festival, freshly arrived on the festival grounds, when I happened to run into a rather incredible conversation already in progress, one between two of the biggest names in barrel-aged beer.

On one side: “Barrelmeister” Jeffers Richardson of Firestone Walker, director of the Barrelworks of the festival’s host brewery. Nearby was owner David Walker, but that was essentially coincidence: As Richardson said, “We just had our 10-minute meeting that we have like once a month. That’s how often I see him. He’s my direct boss, but he pretty much just lets us do our thing and once in a while he reels us in.”

On the other side was Cory King, owner and brewmaster of the supremely hyped Side Project Brewing in St. Louis. The nano brewery, based out of Perennial Artisan Ales where King is already the “Director of Oak,” is producing some of the best sours, saisons and barrel-aged wild ales in the country, and recently dominated our blind saison tasting. Here were these two, discussing the fine arts of barrel-aging beer. I sidled up, mostly just hoping to listen. I asked if I could record, considering that “you two are basically authorities.” King’s response: “I don’t know about that—maybe kindred spirits. I’m still learning, and I hope I keep learning. That’s what keeps it interesting.”

A conversation on wild ales and barrel-aging

Jeffers Richardson: So every subsequent generation, are you seeing changes?

Cory King: Oh yeah, definitely.

Richardson: So it’s a work in progress.

King: Well, my first thought was wine, that people should view us like a winery because each batch is an entirely separate vintage. We’re blend to blend. I try to keep a consistent flavor profile with each brand—I hate that word, with each BEER—but if they taste different on the next go-around, I’m not worried about it.

Richardson: We’re all about blending. I mean, we have some tried and trues and we try to be consistent on those but, like, Agrestic, the ratio of French to American oak two years ago was 75/25, but then it was 87/13 this year. My favorite were the French oak barrels, and it was actually a blend of three to six month stuff, because my cultures that I keep using every year, obviously the acid-producers population grows every year so it gets more sour, quicker, so we’ve got to blend back now. But we get a lot of flavor development in the bottle too; I sit on my bottles for a couple months.

King: Well, we keg condition, and we bottle condition with DB-10 champagne yeast, and they just start apart. I just love what happens in the bottles. I store those in ambient temp on their side.

Richardson: Same way here.

King: And a year later, the stuff that’s been cold because the yeast has been dormant vs. the stuff at ambient is completely different.

Paste: So with the continued mutation/evolution of the strains and adjustments that they make, is consistency something you actually want to strive for down the line? Or is the difference in vintages a big part of your identity now? Are you actively encouraging deviation?

King: I’m certainly not encouraging the beers to deviate completely; I do strive for some consistency. However, unlike 99.9% of the beers out there, where people get the exact same flavor profile when they drink it, these beers don’t have to be that way. And that’s the joy of it.

Richardson: Yeah, we have a couple beers this year that we’re going to make more than once a year. We are trying to dial those in, but all the other beers that have only one release per year, we have a license to change up the blend a bit, tweak it. We’re okay with that, it’s like a wine. And we really, really love to blend. It’s not so much blending for a spec, it’s blending for taste. My partner and I sit down and taste and say “what does it need?”, and we’ll go find a barrel of something that we think will add to it.

The way that we look at it, when we started we didn’t have many barrels so we were like a painter who only had primary colors to work with. From mixing those, you get multiple colors, and that’s what blending is. As you start to blend, you create a broader spectrum of flavors.

I’m starting to put some of my beers that are more consistent into foudres [essentially large oak aging tanks] so I can get a larger batch from that one, and I also have back-barrels of the same beer to blend back to maybe try and match.

Paste: I assume you have to use the same foudres again for the same beer?

King: Yeah, once they’re inoculated with a culture, it’s not going anywhere. That thing has been thoroughly seasoned. So you better hope it’s the culture you want.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he would have sit in on that conversation for hours if possible. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer interviews and features.