After Adelbert’s Brewery founder Scott Hovey bought about 200 well-used oak wine barrels and brought them to the brewery, head brewer Taylor Ziebarth began to become fascinated by the effects of wine and wood on aging beer.
But then he posed himself a new question: What would happen if he fermented a beer entirely in the barrels?
The result of that experiment is a full-blown side project he’s called Oddwood Ales, and the first beer to come out of it is a saison, now on retail shelves around Austin, Dallas, Houston and soon in San Antonio.
The Oddwood Ales bottle describes the saison as filled with “soft notes of tropical fruit, wine-soaked oak and glorious funk” — all words that barely touch on the fermentation process that yielded all those flavors and why it’s so different from other contemporary beer fermentation methods.
Most beers these days are fermented in shiny stainless steel tanks, a process that gives the beer both its alcoholic content and its carbonation. But the tanks don’t imbue the beer with their own flavor characteristics the way that barrels (and whatever alcoholic beverage was previously in them) do. Although many brewers will age their beers in barrels to pull in notes of oak, vanilla, smoke and more, it’s not often that they ferment the beer in them, especially because fermentation in barrels takes far longer.
Ziebarth, however, wanted to see what the wild yeast he chose to ferment with, a combination of Belgian and Brettanomyces yeast, would do in the barrels. “They had a field day,” he said.
Those wild yeast strains are the primary difference between Adelbert’s and Oddwood and why Ziebarth wanted to make the saison an entirely separate entity.
“Adelbert’s other barrel-aging projects haven’t been interested in bringing in wild yeast, as with Oddwood,” Ziebarth said. “With those, the goal was to impart the flavor of the spirits that came in the barrels before the beer, as well as the toasty, buttery notes of the barrels themselves.”
He chose to brew a Belgian-style saison (his favorite beer style) and let it ferment for six months in the barrels before moving the beer to bottles, where it spent a month conditioning, as per Adelbert’s usual practice. (Bottle-conditioning is essentially a second fermentation, contributing extra carbonation, cleaning up any rough edges and preserving the beer more gracefully.) He’s pleased with the end result, a tart, dry and slightly fruity beer that’s been just as influenced by the barrels as the wild yeast.
Because the barrels had already seen lots of use before being brought to Adelbert’s, they don’t have as many of the wine and wood characteristics that are easier to pick up in younger barrels, a subtlety that Ziebarth sought so the light saison wouldn’t be overpowered. He also liked that fermenting beer in them made the brewing process more hands off and thus far more uncertain.
“Adelbert’s 11 year-round beers are very exact and controlled,” he said. “When we brew them, there’s a certain set of specifications that we stick to and follow faithfully. But what’s fun about this is that there’s an element I have no control over. It’s all up to the wild yeast and their time in the barrels. I check back up on them every so often and discover what the beer’s become.”
Future Oddwood Ales will also be fermented in those barrels (and a second batch of the saison is already in them). Ziebarth wants to make an 8 1/2 percent ABV sour golden ale, like Duvel, the beer that first turned him on to craft beer, as well as brews with prickly pear and wild Texas grapes.
Eventually, a new warehouse Adelbert’s recently acquired will become the place where Adelbert’s and Oddwood beers are bottle-conditioned, leaving more room in the current space to fill with barrels.
“I’m not saying this is going to become a barrel powerhouse, considering it takes a lot of time to age beers, but I do want the Oddwood Saison to be a year-round beer,” he said.
Oddwood is one of two brewing projects that Adelbert’s has been affiliated with recently (Naughty Brewing, the other one, is rolling out the first batch of Kentucky Streetwalker, a bourbon barrel-aged imperial vanilla porter, in Austin next week), and Ziebarth still isn’t quite sure how to define Oddwood because of how closely tied it is to Adelbert’s.
“I don’t really think it’s an Adelbert’s beer,” he said. “It’s brewed here, it’s distributed through us, it’s under the same license for legal reasons, but it’s very different from anything Adelbert’s does.”