Thursday, October 18, 2012

Backstage pass: The Bruery's barrel management warehouse

Searching for the perfect Black Tuesday sample
Over the summer, we learned more about brewing thanks to Matt Strickland, barrel manager at The Bruery in Placentia. Our fascination with beer has grown enough in the last couple of years that Matt extended an invitation to visit the warehouse he works at. Less than five miles from their headquarters, only a core group of employees and VIPs step foot in the building. Tastings here are special because most consumers never get to taste product directly out of the barrel.

During one heatwave of an afternoon (106?!) I arrive for my private tasting. It would also be Matt's last day with The Bruery, as he accepted an offer in his hometown of Nashville to work for Corsair-- an artisan distillery that's booming in all things absinthe, rum and gin. While I was sad to see him go, he was cool enough to guide me through all things barrel-aged.

An error in photo rotation, or the result of one too many tastes?
Only about 40% of their inventory is stored here. Everything else is contained down the street in stainless steel tanks that patrons get a glimpse of while visiting their recently opened tasting room. The warehouse itself is peaceful, except for my heels clacking on the concrete. Like one massive walk-in closet for beer, it's stacked high with barrels. I was reminded of my recent visit to Napa, minus the cavernous tunnels. The front room was pleasantly lit and air-conditioned, so we began our tasting here with Sour in the Rye and a sampling of next years Oude Tart. Matt pulls samples in a fashion similar to whiskey distillers, drilling holes and using nails to seal. He also takes care in sanitizing the area surrounding the barrels to ensure zero chance of growth outside of them. Our rye was recently brewed and tasted mild in comparison to the tart. A drain system runs beneath us, taking the place of spit buckets (who doesn't finish their beer?!) and acting as an "out" in the event of a barrel mishap. Before moving on, I shake hands with another Matt (director of retail) as he heads out for a meeting at their Provisions store.

My tour moves to the sour room, where all the funky bacteria is allowed to work their magic. Here we find some special batches like Christmas beer, based on the famous 12 days. I spot a few barrels of Four Calling Birds, set aside for special release to their reserve society. Matt explains how almost everything here is blended mixing some parts old and some new. Their goal is to create a flavor profile that is similar enough from year to year. Sometimes, adding a young component with a distinct character might provide a positive impact on a batch. Older contributions are upwards of two to two and-a-half years old. After an agreed upon aging period, they will go straight to bottling.

Charlotte, 1.5 years old
Smoking Wood is our next taste. At 10%, it is the lowest in alcohol, but the most difficult to brew. Nobody knows why, except maybe because of the large proportion of rye used. It's already a temperamental grain, despite being used in many of their beers. Typical brewing process lasts six hours; brewing Smoking Wood lasts anywhere between 10 to 12. Its flavor reminds me of backyard barbecues. In contrast, he pours their Anniversary beer. The gimmicky recipe is almost identical from year-to-year, matching the amount of grain to the year it's brewed. Therefore, this year's batch contains 2,012 pounds of grain. A tasty blend, the Old Ale style is our favorite of the six, tasting more like hard liquor.

This brings us to our final two selections. Matt wanders down a dimly lit aisle, selecting an appropriate Imperial Stout for the brew that would be known as Black Tuesday. Aged in Bourbon barrels for over a year, this year's vintage was recently bottled in preparation for its October 30 release. A name with dual meaning, not only is it a nod to the Great Depression, but also for the exhausting brewing circumstances it was created under. The final photo is of Charlotte's Beer, named after the daughter of founder Patrick Rue. A taste of this was a rare treat, since it will never have a public release. Created specifically with her in mind, this is held in eight brand new, American Oak barrels, and will age until Charlotte's twenty-first birthday. It began at 21%, but Matt predicts it will be upwards of 27 to 30% once she is old enough to taste it. A beautiful amber, it is strong with a smooth finish. Beer by definition, Charlotte's Beer was made with 51% corn mash to resemble bourbon.

Thanks to Matt, I have a new appreciation for sour beers and the process that parallels winemaking. I don't know if our paths will ever cross again, but it was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.

The Bruery 
717 Dunn Way