Barrel Storage Tips for Breweries and Distilleries

stack of barrels in a warehouse

By Alyssa L. Ochs

Breweries and distilleries use barrels for aging, to achieve oxidation and charring and to add distinctive flavors to their products. But an important factor to remember is how you store the barrels because storage can affect flavors, textures and the length of the brewing or distilling process.

To learn more about this issue and how modern producers approach barrel storage, we connected with a few brewers and distillers to discuss common challenges, best practices and expert advice.

Where to Store Barrels

One common place to store barrels is a racked warehouse, also known as a rickhouse or rackhouse. With this method, craft beverage companies typically hold barrels horizontally on racks with room for air to circulate around the sides and ends. Racked warehouse buildings are made from brick, wood, tin or concrete and may be subject to seasonal fluctuations due to a lack of climate control.

Barrels on lower racks have more consistent yearly temperatures, and the racks are usually six to nine barrels high per floor in a multi-story structure. Getting the barrels in and out of the racks can be labor-intensive. So, some producers use single-story or rickhouses up to four stories tall instead for greater ease and more consistent aging.

Another option for beverage producers is palletized warehouses, where employees place barrels on large, wooden pallets, usually four to six barrels per pallet. Employees can store them vertically with pallets on top of each other to save space and labor. Then, they can move multiple barrels on pallets at a time with a forklift, usually six high per floor. Since restricted airflow may alter the aging process, companies may need to install large fans in the area. This method works best in cool and humid climates without extreme temperature changes. However, there is a greater chance of leaks with pallets stacked on top of each other in a palletized warehouse.

Meanwhile, dunnage warehouses are a well-established form of barrel storage tied to old Scottish traditions. A dunnage warehouse is a single-floor warehouse that offers a beautiful display and consistent maturation over many years. This method is commonly used for old and rare whiskies. The warehouse walls are typically made from stone or brick to prevent large temperature swings that could affect the flavors.

The Importance of Barrel Storage

It is helpful to understand the various methods of barrel storage so that your business can improve flavor profiles and add in flavors like oak, vanilla and fruit. Part of the barrel cleaning and maintenance process also involves checking and cleaning the inside and outside of barrels received, checking for leaks, making repairs and using heat or chemicals to treat them before the first fill. For example, staff members can light a sulfur burner inside a barrel to preserve it and ensure no mold growth, but not if the barrel previously aged spirits. You’ll need to close the bunghole quickly, avoid breathing in the toxic sulfur dioxide and then store the barrels in a cool and dry place, checking them occasionally because gas tends to escape within a few months.

Alternatively, producers can use a citric acid solution to protect barrels from microbial growth for six months or longer to keep the barrels moist. Another vital thing to remember is that storage racks and warehouses must be built with noncombustible materials, such as reinforced concrete, masonry or fireproof steel. Also, electrical systems should be at least five feet above the top of the highest storage level for safety purposes.

What Works for Distillers and Brewers

Matt Cunningham, founder and proprietor of Old Glory Distilling Co. in Clarksville, Tennessee, told Beverage Master that his company palletizes all of its barrels. Old Glory Distilling opened in 2016 and specializes in small-batch Tennessee whiskey and bourbon.

“We use four barrel pallets designed specifically for the storage of barrels to be able to stack them six high in columns,” Cunningham said. “We use a system in our warehouse of rows and columns for organization and safety. We have used some racks before where barrels are laid down, but the amount of space those racks took up and the difficulty handling them didn’t make sense when we built our 10,000-barrel barrel house and made plans for a second one.”

Cunningham said that they plan to take a similar approach to their second barrel house. He also said that the most important thing to keep in mind about barrel storage for spirits is ensuring airflow around the barrels and not enclosing them in a space that does not have any airflow.

“As those barrels are breathing, you don’t want them to become stagnant,” Cunningham said. “This is something we found out and paid heed to some people who used storage containers in the past because they were cheap and readily available. While you can store barrels in them, just make sure they are ventilated and not sealed up. If you are going to use those and your jurisdiction allows for it, you need to ensure good air flow.”

Bryan Smith, the master distiller and owner of Hard Truth Distilling Co. in Nashville, Indiana, told Beverage Master that his company also stores barrels in a palletized barrel warehouse. Hard Truth Distilling began distilling spirits in 2015. It produces over 20 premium spirits and quickly outgrew its original production facility. In 2017, Hard Truth moved into its current 50,000-square-foot building with a state-of-the-art Vendome Copper & Brass distilling system. Its wooded, 325-acre destination campus in Brown County, Indiana also serves as an artist colony and tourist destination surrounded by natural beauty.

“Storing the barrels vertically and on pallets makes our ability to pull barrels for sampling and for blends far more efficient and safe,” Smith said. “Safety is the first consideration, followed by environmental conditions favorable to shape the whiskey to the flavor profile. While monitoring temperature and humidity, for us, a one-story barrel warehouse gives us more consistency over time.”

Many breweries around the U.S. also use barrels and must plan ahead for their storage needs. One example is Alpha Michigan Brewing Company, located in the smallest village in America with a brewery: Alpha, Michigan, which had a population of 126 at the time of the 2020 census. Alpha Brewery prioritizes community involvement and brews to support local organizations, hosting fundraisers and sourcing ingredients from local farmers.

Mike Bjork from Alpha Michigan Brewing Company told us, “We store full barrels in our walk-in cooler and empty, clean barrels in the office with limited space.” He said the most important thing to remember about barrel storage is to “keep the clean and dirty barrels separated.”

The Biggest Issue with Barrel Storage

The biggest challenge that Old Glory Distillery has faced with barrel storage relates to space concerns and a lack of storage space.

“When you start off, you have a designated space where you’re going to store your barrels, but next thing you know, it’s full,” Cunningham from Old Glory Distilling said. “Make sure storage is in excess of what you need because it’s going to fill up.”

Space has also been an issue for Hard Truth Distilling in recent years.

“Our biggest challenge has been our rate of expansion and being able to keep up with our storage needs,” Smith from Hard Truth said.

On the brewery side, Bjork from Alpha Michigan Brewery shared with Beverage Master that space has been his brewery’s biggest challenge, as well.

Advice About Barrel Storage

Brewers and distillers may be interested to learn about companies offering barrel storage solutions, such as B.R. Distilling Company, which provides bonded warehouse storage on four-barrel pallets and charges a monthly storage rate, plus handling fees. Some barrel storage specialty companies offer additional services, including lab analysis, logistics, sampling and TIB registrations.

Some interesting trends in barrel storage are happening now, such as distilleries moving away from traditional rickhouses and using palletized storage instead. This approach generally makes it easier for employees to move barrels and check on the aging process. Also, the industry has increased awareness about how metal roofs and thin walls can make flavors change when seasons change. Craft beverage companies may consider storage-saving designs in which a rack can be compressed into a stack when empty. Meanwhile, barrel storage walls at distilleries can serve decorative purposes by providing attractive photo backdrops and conversation pieces for guests.

One major piece of advice for brewers and distillers is always to keep the barrel storage warehouse clean and dry. Our experts provide additional tips and advice to guide new businesses and those amid operational transitions.

Cunningham from Old Glory Distilling shared with Beverage Master that his advice is to “allow for more space than what you initially need because you’ll eventually need it later.” He also advised,” You don’t need a bung in the staves if you are going to palletize them, as it creates a possibility for those barrels to leak.”

From Hard Truth Distilling, Smith advised, “Do plenty of research on safety and regulatory requirements in your area, first and foremost. Take into consideration your planned operational space and ability to be able to access barrels, as well as the time you plan to age and the flavor profile that you were targeting. And finally, make sure to build more capacity than you think you might need.”

Bjork from Alpha Michigan Brewing Company’s advice to breweries is similar and follows a common theme throughout the industry. He simply advises new and growing breweries, “Ensure you have sufficient space for all barrel storage.”

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