Over a Barrel
Cask shortage plagues craft beer
By Anna Toon, Fri., Feb. 6, 2015
The long-term love affair between brewers and their craft remains forever nonfleeting. And the perpetual ebb and flow of the relationship only solidifies the unions. An unconventional love story or one steeped in tradition, there's a romanticism in brewing beer. There's also an investment – not just in the equipment, but in the sheer volume of time required to do it right. Unfortunately, in the case of barrel-aging in its most recent iteration, the investment may be getting too difficult to stomach. While barrel-age love remains at an all-time high, the availability of the required barrels rests at an all-time low, testing even the most stalwart of relationships.
After an increased demand of bourbon set off widespread fears of a shortage, bourbon producers ramped up production – as did the producers of other spirits such as scotch, gin, and rum. Adding to this is a renewed interest in barrel-aging beer, leaving a new crop of craft distilleries in dire need of the wooden vessels. While cooperages, the makers of the barrels, have been working in overdrive to meet the demand, they just can't keep up, and as a result, the price has gone up tremendously. In fact, it's more than doubled. For Austin's craft brewers this poses a big problem.
Barrel-aged beers offer a complexity and depth of character – often a more intense flavor – than their stainless steel counterparts. "If you put a good beer in a barrel, it's going to come out better," says Taylor Ziebarth of Adelbert's Brewing. Bourbon barrels specifically lend notes of marshmallow and sumptuous vanilla difficult to acquire in any other way. But it isn't just barrels for spirits; wine barrels are also in high demand – especially when trying to procure a barrel that still has some of the residual wine character. "Say you want to make a Belgian-style dubbel and add red wine characteristics to it. Well, then you're going to need to get a barrel that's been well-maintained, probably hasn't been used a lot of times, and is very fresh when it's shipped to you," explains Ziebarth.
According to Real Ale Brewing Co.'s head brewer Erik Ogershok, the barrel shortage has significantly impacted the craft brewery, setting back expansion efforts and delaying the release of new products to the market. Over the last five years, Real Ale's barrel program has steadily grown from four barrels to 150, currently producing close to 20 beers (not including four new ones). However, continued growth will be largely dependent on the availability of wooden barrels. Once abundant and inexpensive, they're now increasingly difficult to obtain. Plus, when it comes to barrels, quality matters. The integrity of the barrel itself is just as important as the barrel's former contents. "I have to know where my barrels are coming from," says Ogershok. "The goal of our program is to make a beer that we're proud of and in the way that we intend, not just to make something. Our goal is to make unique beer with character."
While larger craft breweries such as Firestone Walker and Goose Island are able purchase barrels at a high volume, small breweries are left in a predicament where shipping often outweighs the cost of the barrels themselves. To counteract this, small breweries often go in together to purchase at price break. However, this may not be good enough. According to Ogershok, Real Ale's most reliable bourbon barrel broker has advised that barrels won't be available this year and possibly throughout 2016. While Real Ale is actively looking for other sources, the availability must align with the brew schedule. "The bourbon barrel beers we currently make will remain very limited-release unless I find more cooperage," says Ogershok. "I have plans for at least two more bourbon-barrel beers, but they may now be on hold." Despite this, Ogershok vows to continue researching all available options, moving forward despite the risk. It's part of being in love, and he's not the only one.
"There's a certain romance in working with barrels," says Ziebarth. "I'm definitely caught up in it."