Using New, Reused & Recycled Barrels in the Brewery

Barrels are one of the hallmarks of the wine industry, and commonly associated with the craft spirits industry; however, they play an essential role in brewing beer as well. Breweries utilize barrels and kegs in a variety of ways, and, depending on the purpose, will seek out specific vessels, whether new, used or recycled barrels, or stainless steel kegs.

History and Use of Beer Barrels

The history of the barrel dates back thousands of years to when English monasteries produced and stored brewed beer in wooden vessels. Early brewers made wooden casks from vertical strips of oak that were held together with steel hoops. Over time, the process improved, ensuring the barrels were water-tight, easily transportable, and able to enhance the flavors of the beer.

Although coopering for the beer industry was once considered to be a dying trade, brewer’s interest in barrels has surged in recent years. The process of making beer barrels involves using tools for shaping the wood, bending metal hoops around the wood, and leveling the ends of the staves so that the barrel is sealed correctly. Historically and still today, barrels have been used for storing beer, shipping it to other locations, and adding flavor.

There are many types of barrels used by modern breweries, including bourbon, wine, cognac, whiskey, and sherry. Traditionally, brewers tended to prefer wine and cognac barrels over bourbon for aging beer, but the trend of using bourbon barrels has surged in recent years, creating a trend of aging all styles of beer in these barrels. Bourbon barrels create flavors and aromas of vanilla, caramel, smoke, and toffee. Other types of spirit barrels, such as rum and tequila, are used by brewers occasionally as well.

The most commonly used barrels in the brewing industry are French and American oak. Used American oak barrels tend to be less expensive than used French oak barrels. Less frequently used for barrels are apple, alder, and hickory woods.

There are styles of beer that benefit more from barrel aging than others. In general, beers with big flavors and high alcohol contents tend to do very well. Barrel aging is also typical for dark beers, such as imperial stouts and porters, as well as Belgian dubbels and quadruples.

New Barrels

With new barrels, brewers don’t have to be as concerned about contamination and oxygen permeability. Oak used to build new barrels is often aged for two or three years and then toasted before charring. But brewers should be aware that new wood invokes strong flavors that not every style of beer can handle. New barrels can be excellent choices for hop-heavy beers, such as double IPAs, that have enough bitterness to counteract the intense flavors of new oak.

However, even brand new barrels require some maintenance and prep work. It’s a good idea to burn sulfur dioxide inside new barrels to replace oxygen and prevent spoilage. Swelling new barrels with water before putting beer into them prevents leaks, seepage, and spoilage. Hot water treatments and water soaking treatments help with this process, which should take no more than two or three days. When storing an empty new barrel, brewers should rinse the inside and let it drain so that no pools of water remain.

Used Barrels

While new barrels are used, they are often not cost effective and, for many brewers, don’t produce the desired effect on their beer.

New barrels are very expensive, but used barrels impart flavor and aroma from the spirit that was previously in them,” Richard Hobbs from The Barrel Mill in Avon, Minnesota told Beverage Master Magazine.

Many brewers also prefer used barrels because the flavors imparted by new oak are strong and overwhelm the flavor characteristics in beer. In the brewing industry, used barrels are more common.

Marci Merigian of Barrels Unlimited, Inc. in Fresno, California told Beverage Master Magazine, “It is very rare that brewers would age a beer in a new barrel, if ever. The main purpose of using barrels for brews is to extract the flavor of the wine or spirit that was previously aged in the barrels.”

Naturally, a used barrels require a different maintenance process than new ones. Some brewers store empty used barrels with a sulfur-citric holding solution for sanitation purposes. It is then necessary to thoroughly rinse stored barrels with a clean water holding solution before putting new beer into them. Leaving a barrel to sit for a very long time without taking this precaution may lead the barrel to dry out, grow bacteria, or diminish flavors in the beer.

Used bourbon barrels are the classic standard for imperial stouts, while whiskey barrels are great for aging clean beers that could use some extra flavor. Meanwhile, used wine barrels are great for sour beers because wine barrels produce a mellower flavor than spirit barrels.

According to Merigian, the most commonly used barrels by American breweries today are once-used bourbon barrels, but brandy and wine barrels are also becoming more popular.

Rum and tequila barrels are also heavily sought after, although it is more difficult to obtain nice, fresh barrels from these spirits, as the barrels are very old and have often been used for many other things by the time these products are aged in them,” she said. Hobbs reiterated the current trend and said, “Craft breweries typically only use used barrels and fresh-dumped whiskey or wine barrels.”

Sometimes, brewers utilize used barrels just once, but barrels can also be used many times for the same beer. Breweries often only rotate out about 20 percent of their barrels per year, which means that brewers are less concerned with barrel shortages than craft distillers who use barrels only once.

The flavors from barrels decrease with each use, so brewers shouldn’t expect to get the same results with future batches of the same beer. One recommendation is to use a barrel for the first time for an imperial stout, then for a brown ale with the second use, and for a sour beer with the third. Once significant bacteria or mold growth appears, it may be time to replace the barrel.

The Barrel Mill offers an alternative to barrels called an Infusion Spiral that promises to deliver barrel-like results eight times faster than a traditional oak barrel at a fraction of the price, and with limited risk of contamination.

Our oak Infusion Spiral is our most popular product for breweries. Breweries can get barrel flavor without the cost, time, or space that is required with a barrel program. Brewers soak the spiral in spirits, then introduce them into the brite tank,” said Hobbs.

Recycled Barrels

Wood is not a particularly good candidate for recycling if it has been treated or finished, which is the case for most barrels. However, recycled barrels are used in other creative ways. For example, they can be burned for heat and energy, used to create mulch or particle board, or for renovation projects.

It has also become very common to see old and unusable barrels recycled and reused for brewery décor. A few years ago, New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan launched the BarrelWorks Project, a product line made from oak barrels previously used to age their Dragon’s Milk stout and Beer Barrel Bourbon whiskey. Through this project, old barrels have been recycled to create tables, beach chairs, skateboards, guitar stands, coat racks, bottle openers, and other artistic and useful products.

Kegs

Kegs and tanks weren’t introduced into the brewing scene in American until the late-1800s as an alternative to oak barrels. Breweries can purchase both new and used kegs, but it’s essential to check for leaks, confirm their ability to be sanitized, and ensure that there are no excessive dents as these factors can affect the effectiveness of the keg.

New kegs are less likely to fail than barrels, easier to clean and sanitize, and have a more attractive appearance. However the resale value goes down immediately upon purchase, and bank financing can be tricky. While used kegs are more budget-friendly than barrels, they tend to need maintenance early and frequently because certain parts can become damaged or worn down.

Everyone from large-scale breweries to homebrewers uses kegs for packaging and storing, but the stainless steel does not add flavor to beer like wooden barrels. However, similar measures for cleaning and sanitizing must be taken to avoid ruined and soured beer. The process of cleaning a keg involves disassembling it, filling it with an alkali wash to soak, draining and rinsing the wash, soaking all parts in a sanitizer solution, and rinsing yet again.

Kegs can also be used countless times if they are cleaned regularly and adequately, unlike wooden barrels. Multiple uses are an eco-friendly approach that appeals to some breweries and will also protect beer from UV light and excess oxygen.

Barrel Considerations for Breweries

Many factors affect barrel aged beer, including the nature of the wood, length of time the beer is inside, and what was previously in the barrel. When choosing barrels for beer, brewers must consider each barrel’s purpose and whether new or used barrels will be most beneficial. The current barrel aging trend means a high demand for barrels, leading to concerns about whether enough new and used barrels will be readily available in the years ahead.

One of the most significant issues to keep in mind with used barrels is accidental contamination because barrels collect mold and bacteria over time. Unwanted organisms can burrow into nooks and crannies, which may cause brewers to have to dump out entire batches of beer. Sanitization should be a priority for brewers, from the filling equipment to the barrel, to prevent even the slightest contamination.

Despite the challenges of barrels, barrel aged beer is currently thriving in the industry. Consumers are demanding experimental beers with high alcohol contents and bold flavors. Meanwhile, brewers are connecting with the early roots of brewing beer and feeling reinvigorated in the work they do.

The sky is the limit with these craft brewers!” said Merigian of Barrels Unlimited. “The amazing and unique recipes and flavors that brewmasters can obtain from barrels seem to always make something delicious and interesting. As far as which barrel suppliers to use, I would say someone that has been around a while and has a good reputation in the industry. We do not have many issues, but I have heard horror stories about some brokers. It is very important for your barrels to be fresh and to truly know what you are using for your product.”