Back in February, Texas-based Saint Arnold Brewing Co. released Saint Arnold Bishop’s Barrel No. 6 — an imperial pumpkin stout that aged for six months in rum barrels. That sounded delicious. We felt it was worth a followup with Founder/Brewer Brock Wagner about his company’s barrel-aging program and brewing philosophy for our continuing barrel-aging Q&A series. Be sure to read the first two, with Side Project Brewing and Green Flash Brewing, here and here.
Our barrel-aging program is still pretty small. We do about four releases a year of usually around 50 to 70 57-gallon barrels, each time a different beer, although we revisit beers.
Tell us about the beers — why barrel-age those?
We try to match specific beers with specific barrels. In a general sense, the bigger the beer, the more powerful flavor we try to match from the barrel. Thus, we use big beers in spirits barrels and smaller, although not small, beers in wine barrels.
Where do you get your barrels?
From brokers, distilleries and my cousin’s winery.
What separates a quality barrel from the rest? Anything in particular?
The fresher the barrel, the better. We’ve had good luck with most of our barrels with the exception of some rum barrels. We had an over 25 percent loss rate with the rum barrels we got.
What response have you seen to your barrel-aged beers?
People love barrel-aged beers. The customer for these beers definitely skews towards the beer geek end of the spectrum, but pretty much everybody seems to enjoy them. Right now we don’t have the space to expand what we are doing, but we would enjoy being able to do more in the future.
Do you market barrel-aged beers differently?
We offer our barrel-aged beers only to bars and restaurants, primarily because we don’t produce enough to satisfy the off-premise market. Also, selling only to the on-premise market makes the small amount of bottles we have go further. People tend to purchase just one bottle each when at a bar while people will purchase multiple bottles at grocery and liquor stores.
What beer styles do you think work best barrel-aged?
I’m not a big fan of hoppy beers in barrels. Having said that, I have had some exceptions to that rule. I don’t have one combo that I’m more excited about. I’m most excited about the possibilities that are out there. We are still pretty early in tapping into the variety of beers and barrels we can put together.
What are your top tips for successfully producing barrel-aged beer?
To me the biggest tip: garbage in, garbage out. Whatever goes into the barrel needs to be an exceptional beer. The barrel won’t make the beer exceptional on its own. The other tip is to taste all of the barrels. We typically fill 50 to 75 barrels at a time and have had success rates of between 98 percent and 75 percent of the barrels. You’ll note we’ve never had 100 percent of the barrels included in the final blend.
Any nuanced advice you’ve picked up along the way that brewers might not know?
We’ve tried filling the barrels with finished beer and also filling the barrels just before fermentation is completed. We’ve tried priming the barrels. We’ve had the best luck with using finished beer with a low yeast count and not priming the barrels.