Stock and barrel

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s barrel-aging program takes the long way

James Conery is Sierra Nevada’s assistant brewmaster and oversees production at the brewery’s barrel house in south Chico.

James Conery is Sierra Nevada’s assistant brewmaster and oversees production at the brewery’s barrel house in south Chico.

Photo by Howard Hardee

A relatively small batch of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s first-ever sour beer, a Flanders red ale, just keeps getting better, says James Conery, assistant brew-master.

It was brewed one time in 2014 and what’s left is aging in 55-gallon oak barrels. The sour ale may see a wider release once it’s refined, but there’s no saying when. “It could take years to get where we want,” Conery said.

Such is the nature of barrel aging, the process of adding complex character and flavor by barreling brew and letting it sit, usually for six months to two years. “It’s all relative to the beer,” he said. “Sometimes it takes two months.” It’s possible to age just about any style of beer, he added, given “the right barrel and the right time frame.”

The brewery has been experimenting with aging beer for years, but usually only in small volumes for special events. A full-time program launched in earnest about 2 1/2 years ago and already has produced some of Sierra Nevada’s highest-rated beers. The barrel house is off-site from the main brewery in a nondescript warehouse in south Chico that isn’t open to the public. Conery recently guided the CN&R on a private tour.

Through the door, the first sight is a huge wall of barrels and the warehouse smelled strongly of bourbon. It was cool inside— 55 degrees.

When the facility is at maximum capacity, it holds 2,300 barrels, Conery says. Some, such as whiskey barrels that Conery purchased in Scotland, are decades old. Oak is the wood of choice due to its tight grain and strong seal. The wood itself doesn’t affect the flavor much; the wine or spirit that was previously stored inside makes more of a difference. At first, the brewers worked mostly with old bourbon barrels from Kentucky, but have moved toward wine barrels from Napa County. “Once we got into wine barrels, we’ve found that there’s a significant difference in the flavor [based on] the types of wine,” Conery said.

Barrels on barrels on barrels.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As an example, they aged Otra Vez, Sierra Nevada’s popular prickly pear cactus gose, in a chardonnay barrel and debuted the Chateau Otra Vez in the brewery’s taproom.

Under Conery’s supervision, two employees do all the brewing, sampling, hand-bottling and physical labor for the barrel program. “As far as gigs at the brewery go, it’s one of the better ones from a creative standpoint,” he said. “We’re pretty much given free rein to do whatever we want.

“The beauty of this program is that it’s really from the bottom up,” he continued. “We all sit down and say, ‘Hey, we have some special red wine barrels coming in—what would be fun to brew?’” There is no deadline pressure. For example, in two huge, wooden storage tanks, a brown ale is aging with 1,000 pounds of peaches picked from the Chico State University Farm. It will sit until the brewers are satisfied that it’s the best it can be.

“We’re in here all the time, sampling the beers,” he said. “We have a running list of everything we have in barrels, and we try to sample them all once a week or once a month. Once we think it’s ready, we’ll schedule a time for bottling.”

Some of the brews are released only in the gift stores of the breweries in Chico and Asheville, N.C., and the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room in Berkeley. However, three barrel-aged beers are set for a limited national release: Ginger Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale; a strong pale ale in the French bière de garde style, aged in bourbon and red wine barrels; and Narwhal Imperial Stout aged with black and red currants. About 300 barrels’ worth of each will be distributed.

As for what to expect further into the future, Sierra Nevada recently got on the sour beer bandwagon. The barrel house has a separate “sour room,” where the air has a distinctive funk thanks to the wild yeast at work.

“One fun thing we’ve done is generate a Chico-only wild sour culture,” Conery said. “We just filled up these big metal totes full of wort and parked our truck in a peach orchard overnight and let it spontaneously inoculate.

“It’s under the radar right now. Hopefully, in a couple of years, we’ll be able to put out something that lives up to the name.”