Conspiracy Under the Tarps: We Dig into the Origins of Barrelworks

The Best of the U.S. Meets the Best of Belgium
Firestone Walker’s David Walker (L) and Matt Brynildson (center)  share a lambic with Cantillon Brewer, Jean Van Roy (R)

It started with a chance encounter at Cantillon in May 2011.  Steve Shapiro (one of the two of us responsible for Beer By BART) visited the famed Brussels lambic brewery.  And he was delighted to run into Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and a tall companion with a British accent.  Steve remembers that Jean Van Roy was astonished that he and Matt knew each other. That encounter was, however, Steve’s first introduction to Firestone Walker Brewing’s co-founder, David Walker. Steve remembers Matt whispering about Walker sipping one of the complex, acidic Cantillon beers. “Look, he’s smiling!”

Steve snapped a photo (above) as the three brewing legends enjoyed another lambic creation together.

Not long afterward, we ran into David Walker at San Francisco’s City Beer Store.  Curiously, he implied that he was the one interested in starting a sour program but facing resistance. It caught our attention. A few very nice sour “wood aged” beers from the brewery had already showed up here and there. What was going on?

David Walker, Jeffers Richardson, Jim Crooks
David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks at the Firestone Walker Invitational beer fest, after the launch of Barrelworks

But eventually all was moot. We were delighted when we heard of plans for a sour fermentation facility called Barrelworks in Buellton, an hour and a half south of the main Firestone Walker location in Paso Robles, way down on the Central Coast.

We got to know Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson, the two who anchor the program, each with his own complicated and engrossing back story at Firestone Walker.  Still, the more we heard about their own stories and about Barrelworks, the more puzzled we were.  Had it really been a forbidden project when Walker sipped at Cantillon? The website hinted of drama, but was that just marketing hype? What was true?

So last summer we decided to track this down and take whatever time the story required.  The idea was that we would get the versions of the origin tale from various protagonists and show how differently they saw things.  We were delighted when Beer Advocate Magazine took our project on, and we dug in.

Curiously, each thing we looked into was deeper and more complex than the last. The secrets behind Barrelworks went all the way back to the unusual origins of Firestone Walker itself.  Matt Brynildson, Jim Crooks, Jeffers Richardson, Adam Firestone and David Walker all gave generously of their time and did deep dives into all kinds of tales that we reluctantly left aside as we sharpened our focus and fought to stay within the word count.  Our respect, friendship and appreciation for the people at Firestone Walker grew over the course of our investigation.

The story’s up now on the Beer Advocate website, and we hope you enjoy all of it.

“The problem was that it was getting harder and harder for Crooks to keep the burgeoning project secret. “It was like, this is Jim’s deal, and it was like, don’t tell Adam,” Firestone sighs, recalling his brewers’ increasingly ridiculous attempts to keep him in the dark. “‘Guys, I can see the barrels! They’re dribbling all over the floor. They smell like hell!’”

Alas, some of the weirdly wonderful or disputed details ended up on the cutting room floor as we trimmed the story down to article length. Thanks to Tom Griffin, who told about bringing the first second-hand bourbon barrels out to California, thus getting Matt Brynildson into the incredibly delicious Anniversary beer tradition that recently resulted in another must-not-miss example.  We hope to tell those tales another time.  Mike Hoffman told us how he lost the SLO production brewery, with many details that were eye-opening and fascinating but would have taken us far outside the original focus of the story.  Thanks to Ryan Sweeney from LA’s Surly Goat and related beer bars who told us about arriving at the Paso Robles pub one day and having a draft beer from that sour program that did not exist. There it was, on tap! We dropped another thread of the story that had to do with the unforeseen demand for 805, the popular mainstream blonde ale.   The rise of the Barrelworks program was mentioned as a soul-saving counterbalance to the monotony of producing so much 805. We kept scrapping quotes packed with astonishing insights in order to get the bones of the story in.

And we are excited for the next chapters and new beers coming from Firestone Walker. We’ll be bugging them about the progress of the Belgian sour project mentioned in the beginning of the article, and following their beers.

Jim Crooks and one of his talented wooden foudres in the wood cellar at Barrelworks

So please check out our Feral Ones story in BeerAdvocate magazine.  And, as our editor Ben Keene reminds us, if you subscribe to BeerAdvocate, not only do you support beer journalism, but next time we write something there you will see it all gloriously laid out in a real glossy magazine you can touch, (perhaps with something akin to this issue’s historic Area 51 brewing images from Jeffers), a month before it ever goes up online.

– Gail and Steve

[photos by Steve Shapiro and/or Gail Ann Williams]

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Slow Learning: Sour beer experiments

Now and then the Beer By BART blog detours into the realm of home brewing, specifically the brewing of sour beers. Here’s Gail with some photos and notes from her conversation with James Spencer for his Basic Brewing Radio podcast for April 1, 2014.

The first part of the interview with Basic Brewing is about my side by side experiments brewing with 100% Brettanomyces yeast to preserve happiness in a little session IPA.  That’s a fun experiment to do with a split batch, comparing with a Saccharomyces ale yeast strain and the same hops.

But the second half is both weird and logical, and oh so simple!

Pasta? In beer?

The idea of using pasta to mimic the results of a raw wheat turbid mash process arose from a challenge posed by Steve Piatz in this BYO article on Lambic Style Brewing, where he said,

Pasta in a plastic fermenter. It will soften slowly in the water and alcohol, and does not have to be cooked

“The wheat extract is a poor man’s approximation of the unmalted wheat used in the commercial lambic breweries. I don’t know of an extract equivalent of unmalted wheat.”  

I have used his method to make sour beers for about six years now, and I like brewing on a kitchen stovetop for these beers, so dry extracts are appealing and effective.  I always wanted to figure out a source for high quality gelatinized raw wheat for these batches of American sour beer inspired by the classic Belgian Lambics.

Gail adding whole wheat artisan organic spaghetti to a vessel where fermentation will take place – in a different batch than the one tasted on the podcast
After beer has been racked off of this one-year-lambic batch, the spaghetti looks cooked – and the oak cubes look like meatballs!

A trip to Belgium (and a brew day at Cantillon) gave me the insight that Lambic wort is incredibly starchy.  It reminded me of a liquid glass of Cream of Wheat cereal with a lot of honey mixed in.

Why not try top quality whole wheat pasta?  I like to use a variety that is 100% wheat, with no eggs or other extra ingredients. I figure you want the proteins and the wheat fiber as well as starches, and if you made your own turbid mash, you’d be using whole raw wheatberries, and gelatinizing them with a long cereal mash process.  The whole wheat pasta has it all, and  it’s already been cooked, then dried for convenience.  Why not flour? Flour is not cooked — pre-gelatinized– for you.

You don’t need to cook pasta again, you can just give it to your yeast and bacteria as an additional component to the wort, softening and being consumed in the fermenter for a year or two, like starch suspended in a lambic wort!

An ambient dark sour batch, made with local wild microbiota plus some brett on cherry pits saved from an earlier batch.

I was pretty confident that would work, since once you have made Lambic-inspired beers you have probably seen ghosts of fruit, like a round gray ash of a blueberry for example, sitting at the bottom of your fermenters.  So why not let noodles sit down there to slowly feed the Brett?

I have used pasta in a bunch of mixed-culture sour beers now.  I think the effect is subtle, but I like the character.    So my experiment was to split a batch and see what the whole wheat pasta contributed.

Both beers were made with the same initial batch based on the Piatz experiment — 6#s of DME (5 gal recipe)  and two ounces of aged hops —  all the 2 year aged hops I had — in an old bag marked “6.5%Alpha”.  (Sigh. Record keeping issues again! Pretty sure they were sterlings.)   I wished I had some 3 year, and so I plan to buy some noble hops for aging this year.

Dividing into small batches lets you do special fruit flavors or making blending variations
Dividing into small batches lets you do special fruit flavors or making blending variations. Blueberries caught in the pellicle in a gallon jug.

For one half I added 2oz dry maltodextrine into the clean fermenter, for the other I added dry whole wheat spaghetti. If I wasn’t pitching a mixed culture I’d have thought that packaged noodles might need to be cooked to sanitize them, but I had confidence in the select mix of “bugs” (along with acidity and alcohol over time) overcoming any traces of bacteria that might be on a properly packaged food product.

I didn’t know how to calculate how much of the carbohydrate value of pasta is fermentable, so I put in a whole package, 16 ounces.  I am pretty sure that was too much, since the beers finished at different gravities.   Starting Gravity was 1.053 for both halves;  Final Gravity of the pasta batch was 1.013, the one with a minor maltodextrine boost was 1.1010. This says to me I could keep trying to match the fermentables, so I understand how much energy the Brett can find in the noodles, but the purpose was for taste.  I like the slight additional complexity I got in the side-by side when I tried the beers.

We also talked about fruit lambics and wild ambient fermentations I have done on my back porch– which I have used for blending, so far — and we had a lot of fun on the show.

Back porch coolship: For this batch I used the kettle itself as the coolship to let the wort cool slowly and attract wild yeasts. I used a mesh bag to let bacteria and wild yeast in but keep flies out, and the chair to thwart neighborhood raccoons. Overnight in the winter months gets cold enough.
Back porch coolship: For this batch I used the kettle itself as the coolship to let the wort cool slowly and attract wild yeasts. I used a mesh bag to let bacteria and wild yeast in but keep flies out, and the chair to thwart neighborhood raccoons. Overnight in the winter months gets cold enough.

Local don’t-miss events and destinations: You do know that this Saturday is the incredible annual IPA festival at The Bistro, not far from the Hayward BART station, right? Ok!


Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.


Bistro Barrel Fest Blends Varieties and Flavors

November 11, 2013

Vic and Cynthia
Bistro Owners Vic and Cynthia Kralj

On Saturday we attended one of our favorite festivals in the Bay Area, The Bistro’s West Coast Barrel Aged Festival. Bistro proprietors Vic and Cynthia Kralj brought in 67 beers of many different styles that had one thing in common — they had spent some maturation time in a wood barrel. In general, the beers born of wine barrel aging tended to be sour ales inspired by the Belgian tradition, while a variety of clean strong ales had come through spirits barrels with rich results.

The beauty of this festival is in the incredible contrast between the beers. The panoply of intense flavors allows one to taste each beer without undue influence of the preceding beer. Sour beer reset the palate after a strong sweeter brew. Next, an oak-aged barleywine soothed the tang of a sour. The 41 participating breweries sent a wide range of flavorful concoctions. Bear Republic, for instance, brought five beers ranging from its wonderfully tart Tartare to a version of Big Bear Imperial Stout aged with prickly pear.
Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, from Denver, sent a Burgundy Sour Ale. Sierra Nevada sent special barrel-aged versions of three of its readily available beers, Narwhal (imperial stout), Ovila Dubbel and Brett T-ShirtAudition, which is Ruthless Rye IPA dosed with whole cone Comet and East Kent Golding hops.
Several years ago, the Kraljs decided to dispense with the professional judging of this festival, believing it was difficult if not unfair to judge such divergent and emerging styles against each other for one award. However, festival-goers are still encouraged to vote for People’s Choice. For the second year in a row, tiny Sante Adairius Rustic Ales from Capitola won the award. Its West Ashley, a saison transformed by time in French Pinot Noir barrels with apricots and house souring organisms, was the only bottled beer served at the festival. Sierra Nevada’s bourbon barrel aged Narwhal finished second.
This fest is not for the weak livered. Only ten of the beers had an ABV under seven percent. 22 clocked in withGeneral Crowd double-digits. Despite the crowds, most of the beers in attendance left many wonderful flavors on the table — or in the kegs, if you will.
Fear not. The Bistro will put each of the remaining partial kegs back on tap in the coming weeks. It is most definitely worth a visit — or a return visit — to Hayward in November.

P.S.: Sierra Nevada opens their new taproom in Berkeley — the Torpedo Room — within about a week. Many of their small batch experimental brews will be coming to town. Sante Adairius is not an easy destination except by car, but a weekend getaway to Santa Cruz was already a pleasant idea before this great nanobrewery opened, so put it on your list. The tasting room is open Thursday-Sunday. Check: for exact times and location.

Learning to make sour beers at home

Last night we were thrilled to attend the SF Homebrewers Guild monthly meeting to talk about sour beers!

Beer By BART’s Gail Ann Williams joined Steve Smith of the exciting new local yeast lab, GigaYeast, to talk about making sour beers. Here is her slide deck, for anybody who wants to give Lambic (or the outside of Belgium pseudo-Lambic) brewing a try, or to see how others are doing it.

If you’re less patient, there are some lovely artisan sour beers made in our area, and quite a few are served at wonderful pubs within walking distance of BART, as a matter of fact.

It’s Never Too Soon To Go Sour: Sour Beer Homebrewing

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Sour Sunday, as #sfbeerweek continues!

San Francisco Beer Week continues all around the Bay Area today. The two of us (Steve and Gail) are going to Sour Sunday in Berkeley, at Triple Rock and Jupiter, both near the downtown Berkeley BART station. (Find them by station or alphabetically on the main Beer By BART directory on our home page)

My Funky Valentine fruit and wheat slurry
The making of My Funky Valentine: Brett meets organic stone fruits in a food-grade bucket

We’ll be pouring My Funky Valentine, the very small batch dark sour stonefruit collaboration beer Gail did with Bison Brewing at this event. Come on by the Bison table at 1:00 pm for the release. Think Baltic Porter base, and then organic dried sour cherries, organic dried red plums, organic dried nectarine… and whole wheat pasta. If you are at this crowded but always worthwhile event, drop by to ask Gail why the spaghetti made this sour beer sing.

Here’s more of the the story of this unique sour beer, and how “The Hostage” became “My Funky Valentine.”

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

Sour beer collaboration with Bison Brewing – meet My Funky Valentine

(By Gail Ann Williams, the brewer in the Beer By BART family)

This coming week I hope you get to enjoy SF Beer Week, and that you get a chance to try My Funky Valentine.  In November, “Organic Dan,” Dan DelGrande of Bison Brewing, touched base with me to propose a collaboration.   He offered me four five-gallon corny kegs full of The Hostage, an organic Baltic Porter that had spontaneously soured in a bourbon barrel.

His offer was that I could add bugs, fruit or whatever to make something special out of this very lactic brown beer.

kegs in the kitchenI was delighted at the opportunity to “doctor” a clean lactic sour beer, and immediately started growing up several strains of Brettanomyces from little jars in my refrigerator, using organic apple juice and organic brown rice syrup for a starter because I had no organic malt in the house, and Bison is an organic brewery.  (I promise to post more geeky details later for those who want all the specs, but I selected the most vigorous strains of the yeast and put them in a bucket of chopped dried organic cherries and red plums. And organic whole wheat spaghetti. Brett loves wheat.)

After a week, I added the fermenting fruit slurry to kegs of the base beer.  Some weeks later, there was less fruit extraction than I wanted, so I added more fruit — some amazing organic nectarines that were the available organic fruit at my house that evening — to one of the kegs in order to blend in more fruit intensity.

The last tasting was much more fruit forward than I ever expected.   I can’t wait until I can have a whole glass instead of a small sample.

heart shaped charmI’m getting ready for the debut of this beer, most likely at the Opening Gala of SFBW Friday, and then at Sour Sunday in Berkeley.  There is only 20 gallons on the planet, so it may be poured at a set time at the Bison Brewing table.  Please stop by and have a taste if you like.   I even bought some little heart trinkets for decorating tap handles…

Go, Beer Week!   Go, My Funky Valentine.

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

Looking back again to SF Beer Week 2012

The Celebrator Beer News has published a web-only version of the story we wrote about SF Beer Week 2012.  If you participated in San Francisco Beer Week this year, you may have seen us running around with our cameras and notebooks through ten blurry days somewhat obliviously surrounding Valentines Day, filled with great beer, interesting people and lots of learning.  Of particular interest to us this time was the exceptional sour beer tasting and blending seminar conducted by Eric and Lauren Salazar from New Belgium Brewery, which we describe in our article.  Check it out here:

We’ve enjoyed looking back at and thinking about what makes a memorable Beer Week event, whether in San Francisco or in any of the other fine places where Beer Weeks are springing up.   We’ve also included some of our own photos of the week on this page.

SFBW was phenomenal again. Do you have any wishes for next year’s beer week?  There’s plenty of time to make something happen by dreaming big and letting our community know about it.   What do you think you’d like to see in 2013? We may as well make our desires known.

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

True Lambic: Sick beers and the magic of Cantillon

This is the spring when Jean Van Roy came to San Francisco, to pass along traditional sour beer making lore to the next generation of adventurous brewers at the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference.  Jean is the one man in the world who carries on an unbroken family lineage and training in the twin traditional crafts of brewing and blending spontaneously fermented beers in Brussels, once a brewing center of the Senne Valley in the heart of Belgium.  His grandfather’s elegant, tart, complex Cantillon beers nearly died off in obscurity when the industrial revolution’s cheap and inoffensive lagers swept the world.

Jean Van Roy of Cantillon
Jean Van Roy tells the story of Cantillon and Lambic tradition
Due to the dedication of his father and himself, Jean’s family brewery survived to a new era of recognition and demand. He and a small handful of fellow Lambic brewers and blenders went from obscure to revered with the help of friends including the late British beer writer Michael Jackson, the two siblings who created the Shelton Brothers company to import his beers into the US and a growing cadre of appreciative American brewers such as our local Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa.  In return, we can thank Jean and his father for maintaining the tradition of their beers, and for a wide range of new tart, leathery, funky non-Belgian craft beer concoctions inspired by this ancient Belgian beer knowledge. The large hall was packed with attentive brewers, seeking information to help them participate in one of the most exciting trends in craft brewing.

The more you know about Lambic brewing, the more different it seems from other beer traditions. Modern ales usually take merely weeks to produce, after a very pure dose of specific beer yeast is added to start a typical vigorous fermentation. True Lambic beers will have a slow life-cycle closer to that of a wine fermentation.  Traditional Lambic breweries allow a hodge-podge of yeasts and local bacteria to blow in on the breezes to land in a vessel called a coolship, and later to live deep in the wood of fermentation barrels. Those strange “spontaneous” mixtures of microorganisms are totally responsible for fermenting and conditioning these beers at their own pace.

While aging, the mixed organisms form a strange-looking protective film over the surface of the beer, and then go though two summers of warmer temperatures where they become extremely weird, ropey and viscous throughout the entire barrel. This harmless but off-putting polysaccharide slime can pour with the consistency of oil or perhaps thin snot, so it is no surprise that this condition has come to be known as “sick” beer, or more specifically as the fat sickness, “la maladie de la graisse” in French.  For contemporary brewers who are embarking on a journey to make a beer inspired by the Lambic method, it’s comforting to know what strange things may happen along the way.

Cantillon's Jean Van Roy talks about sick beer

Jean comments about beer sickness and beer quality (30 seconds)

Jean Van Roy stated that he is not a “brewmaster” because he cannot master or dominate his beers.  He says he is a bit of a partner and a bit of a guide to his beers, using his knowledge of the peculiar paths these fermentations can take, passed along from his father and grandfather.  He helps the beers along.  This brings to mind some of the older words, like “alewife” from England (once used for women who brewed with undoubtedly mixed fermentations,  serving almost as midwives to deliver the beers of their day).   In using his experience to guide these great beers to fruition, Jean says that he is compelled “to follow my beer.”

The Van Roy family has faced several generations of adversity, ranging from a century-long decline of interest in Lambic in its native land and loss of many of their respected peers, to a dilution of meaning of their magical process and place-specific beer style.  While regional wine style names like “Champagne” are protected by having a legally enforced definition in Europe, traditional Lambic has not been so fortunate.  Some other Belgian companies filter and sweeten modern industrial products that can legally still be called Lambic.   As a result of the great new sour beer making explosion of recent years,  admiring brewers around the world are marketing their beers as “Lambic” or “Lambic Style.”

At the question portion of the conference session, Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing brought up this question of the Lambic appellation.  What should we call other contemporary beers, from outside the Senne valley, that were inspired by Lambic beer making traditions?   They could be named for their region, as Lambics were originally. They might be called “spontaneous,” Jean suggested.   Cantillon will be working on a new Lambic cellar in conjunction with the city of Brussels to honor the tradition and make long-aged beers available.  We can honor that resolve to save the authentic traditions by not calling our non-Belgian domestic beers “Lambic Style,” and by leaning on groups who present brewing competitions to change course and avoid the use of “Lambic” in category names.

Americans seem willing to call the related beers “sour,”  though that is often an exaggeration.  Jean wants his own finished beers to be complex and mellow.  Many people comment on the similarities between the true Lambics and fine aged dry wines.  There is a tartness, but there are layers of mysterious character that balance the acidity. Tasters search for analogies for the complex and compelling wood and animal aromas and flavors. “Wild” is used on labels sometimes in the US and other areas outside of Belgium, and not always when the fermentation is open to local organisms.  Sometimes the use of Brettanomyces yeast is noted on a label.  Those of us who seek new examples of these remarkable beers sometimes have to embrace beer-hunting and label scrutiny as an extension of our hobby.

caution - sour beers - a sign on a cooler
CAUTION: Special beers protected from accidental purchase at the Jug Shop in SF.

Now and then the scary sound of “sour” works to the advantage of the sour-seeking consumers. It is reassuring to see that people who might not yet appreciate these beers have been cautioned to leave them for those of us who already love them, and who would never pour them out or return them as “spoiled” in confusion.

We are already seeing Cantillon beers available less often locally, as the global interest in the wild and sour increases. One great moment of optimism in the CBC panel came when an audience member asked about building a coolship, prompting the panelists to all speak with great enthusiasm.  (You want a very large surface area on the cooling vessel, but it should not be so shallow as to make for a too sudden a cooling of the hot liquid.  Some of those ambient organisms in the cold night air only get “spontaneous” when their food source is still warm.)  We can only hope that this contemporary recognition of the importance of teaching the old ways will revive the craft in a deep way in the Brussels region, too.  It is clearly opening the rest of the world to experimentation.  Enough of us have fallen for these beers that Cantillon has a growing world wide audience, waiting for that the next batch that has made the journey through time, surviving seasons as a sick beer to heal, become even stronger and flourish.

Here’s a recording of Jean’s talk posted by Jay Brooks for your listening pleasure.   

Local notes:
The Craft Brewer’s Conference was a big week for local breweries, who did the region proud. Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, along with their Russian River brew crew, appeared to have boundless energy up to and through the week. Along with convening this panel, they hosted a pre-conference symposium at their own place, they prepared and bottled a special conference attendees’ brown sour ale made in conjunction with Sierra Nevada, and they held an event to announce that these two fine northern California breweries will undertake another sour collaboration to be released to the public.

Russian River
Natalie Cilurzo and a member of the Russian River brew crew pouring for industry colleagues in front of a wall of fish at the Academy of Sciences.

How to learn more: For San Francisco Bay Area sour beer learning, an afternoon at City Beer Store, Beer Revolution, The Trappist or La Trappe, all walkable from the BART or MUNI system, is a good way to begin or to continue your education, providing you can get the time and attention of the experienced bartenders there. Three or four people sharing a few bottles can put together an excellent flight to explore fine American and Belgian tart and funky flavors. Cantillon beers may not be not as easy to find in California as they were a few years ago, but the new craft beers from North America and elsewhere that they have inspired are also worth exploring. Ask your better beer bartender or bottle shopkeeper what’s new… and what’s ancient. For book-learning, seek out a copy of the excellent “Wild Brews” by Jeff Sparrow, which has insights for those who drink, brew or home-brew beers inspired by these traditions.

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.