Avery Brewing has been souring and barreling beers for over a decade, well before brettanomyces and lactobacillus were semi-familiar words. Today the brewery has expanded their barrel programs, using new bourbon barrels to age beers, then repurposing those now neutral barrels for sours. Of roughly 2000 barrels, they estimate that 1200 are for aging on spirits and 800 for sours, with the latter number expected to grow.
Those barrels produce three similarly named but different series of beers. The Barrel Aged series, Botanicals & Barrels, and the Annual Barrel series. The Annual series is self-explanatory, Botanicals & Barrels is a new year round program that features Raspberry Sour, and The Barrel Aged series is the special project of Andy Parker. “My little darling,” he says. “Whatever we want to do. We make each project once and never again.”
Given the title “barrel herder,” Parker leads a wooden flock to the promised land of full flavor. He enjoys the one-and-done approach, but all that experimentation is also to credit for the success of Raspberry Sour, he says. Ten years in sour beers isn’t much, he claims, but it’s built the foundation and confidence to produce a reliably consistent true sour batch, year round. Meanwhile, he still gets to play around with the differed Barrel Aged beers.
Paste: How did your sour program and barreling evolve to become a regular program?
Andy Parker: The brief history of the program is, I started at Avery about 14 years ago. Twelve years ago, we were good friends with some of the people who started doing barrel programs. Adam Avery is good friends with Vinnie [Cilurzo] from Russian River and he sent us 12 barrels. We only had like five employees at the time and had no idea what we were doing so we started filling them. Some was served in our taproom and some was dumped down the drain.
I got really curious about it as a 25-year-old beer geek, so I started playing around with brett beers. I came up with a proposal: “I’ve been playing around with these. This is my proposal to make 100% brett beer and age it in barrels and bottle it.”
Adam said, “I’ve been thinking we should do something like that.” I just backed out of the office before something changed and bought the barrels.
I’m trying to make Botanicals & Barrels on a bigger scale, year round, and as consistent as possible. Whenever you’re dealing in barrels, there’s what I call the chaos factor. If you’re putting beer in steel, it’s mostly under your control, as soon as you put beer in a barrel, things might not work out.
We started with 12 barrels and we didn’t have room for them. We just put them out by the boiler with no idea what we were doing. Then we learned more and had 30 barrels, then 250 barrels. But in the last two to three years we’ve gone from 250 barrels to about 2,000 and we’ll be at 3,000 by summer.
Paste: Is there a way to measure how much of Avery’s efforts are with barreled beers?
AP: The percentage is going up. I don’t think we’re up to 10% yet but two years from now I would imagine 10% of our output would be barrel aged.
We got lucky. I think our first sour beer we took Salvation, our Belgian golden and threw it into a barrel with a strain of brettanomyces in it. We tasted it about six months later and it had gone sour in a really good way. It turns out there was a pediococcus strain living in that barrel and it infected that beer and made it really awesome. I took that barrel and purposely infused it into other barrels. Every sour beer we’ve made in this brewery for the last nine years, the origin of the sourness is from that barrel. I’ve just propped it from barrel to barrel.
Paste: Is there a marketing challenge in not making the same beer twice?
AP: Oh yeah, it drives people crazy. It’s fun.
If any of these one-offs were 10,000 cases of beer maybe I’d be concerned about selling them, but we’ve developed a good enough reputation where people aren’t afraid to buy it sight unseen. These bottles aren’t cheap. If we put out crap in a bottle and someone spends $12 on it they’re never going to buy our beer again. And they shouldn’t, there’s too much other good beer out there. As long as quality is #1, we’re going to roll with it and do these random barrels because it’s fun.
It’s definitely a marketing challenge but we have another 30 beers we’re going to put out this year, including barrel aged stuff we are making over and over again—we do that too. We want to do all the things, and we’re trying to do as many as we can.
Paste: Is barrel aging and packaging a cost effective way to make beer, given those chaos factors?
AP: If you’ve been to the beer store and seen the prices, they’re not cheap. Those who drink them know the effort and time that goes into them. I’ve known the pain of dumping individual batches, or barrels because they didn’t meet our flavor profile.
Yes, they’re more expensive. It’s still such a tiny percentage of the beer drinking public. While it’s growing, it’s this niche thing. If you’re trying to squeeze the most money out of something, you make a ton of White Rascal and IPA and market the living shit out of it. I don’t know if people at Avery got into the business to get rich: we like making beer and hanging out together and having fun. We’ll put out 40-50 different beers this year, not including the ones in our taproom, because that’s more fun.
We try to keep it as reasonable as we can. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing the Botanicals & Barrels series. Raspberry Sour is not something I would have felt comfortable with five years ago, trying to make a consistent year round sour. But instead of using brand new barrels that impart flavor we’re using neutral barrels and doing our souring in there. That means we can put that bomber on the shelf for $13. If someone has never had a sour beer before and can be introduced on that, that’s awesome.
Paste: Do you think consumers are leaning in a certain direction with sours?
AP: There’s this whole wide range of flavors just getting explored and we’re all learning about it as we go. The last 10 years was anything goes. In my experimentation, I’m sure I put out seriously flawed beer because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time and we didn’t have the quality control. There are a lot of newer breweries putting out beers with crazy flavors. Five years ago, I was tasting heavier acetic acid bombs in more American beers. Now brewers are learning and keeping it on the lactic side, which are more fun to drink on a large scale.
Paste: Would you like to see more focus on verbiage instead of just “sour”?
AP: The terms are indistinct and they don’t tell consumers what it means. Even now we’re running into confusion: what is a sour beer? Are you talking aged beers using bacteria in barrels for an extended period of time to create that acid, or are you talking kettle sours where you’re creating it in the kettle and you’re not aging it at all? It’s a perfectly good way to make a great beer but if someone who doesn’t know these beers well and goes in the store and sees our Raspberry Sour for $14 a bomber, which is inexpensive for a sour beer—we aged it in barrels for four to six months, it underwent all this work—and then they see a six pack of a kettle sour for $8 because they turned it around in two weeks—well why would I pay more for Avery when this is a sour too?
They’re both great ways to make beers, but people should know why they pay money to get what they get. They should have as much info as possible.
Paste: Who is buying sours today? Is it cannibalizing other beer sales?
AP: At this point we can’t even make enough barrel aged beers. We’ve octupled our barrels and it’s still selling as quickly as we can make it. Our program was so small that for a long time we’d only send it to one or two states, but now that we’re bigger we can send it to 10-15 states. I wouldn’t say it’s cannibalizing other high-end beers we’re making. It’s just creating more fans.