Asheville, North Carolina’s Archetype Brewing opened in May 2017 with an IPA, a Porter, a Blonde Ale, Witbier, and a “Petite Saison” in its lineup. But co-owner Steven Anan also had an eye toward the future. Three months later, beer was going into French oak barrels.
“We came into this knowing we wanted to do barrel-aging,” he says. “Generally, it adds depth to your portfolio, but it was also going to be in line with what we wanted to push stylistically with Belgian-influenced beers.”
In December 2018, Archetype was finally able to release its first round of barreled beer: Liber Novus Belgian Red Ale, which spent 14 months in French oak red wine barrels, and Devil's Nest Belgian Tripel, which had an eight-month stay in French oak white wine barrels. In addition to all the other costs of starting the business, the price for 16 wine barrels—eight each of red and white—and four 132-gallon red wine puncheons was around $5,000.
"It's not incredibly expensive if you put those costs next to one stainless steel tank," Anan says. "And in terms of beer offerings, it immediately extends our portfolio in more ways than one 10-barrel tank could do."
Anan and his partners’ strategy isn't out of the ordinary. With nearly three breweries opening every day, high-quality beer has become the baseline, and a diverse portfolio of offerings the table stakes. While anyone can theoretically make clean beer at any time and place, thanks to advances in technology and ingredients, barrel programs are an opportunity to offer drinkers unique experiences and flavors. They also give brewers the chance to push their technical know-how.
In a city like Asheville, where Wicked Weed Brewing began making wild, sour, and mixed-fermentation beers when it opened in December 2012, there's a benefit to playing that game, and trying to find ways to differentiate yourself. Archetype is using seven different Brettanomyces strains to build fermentation profiles specific to the brewery.
"Our barrels are more than an aging vessel," Anan says. "They're able to impart certain flavor characteristics that are unique to us."
For those in the industry, the rise of barrel programs isn't a surprise. At this year's Craft Brewers Conference, there were 33 vendors representing barrel and racking-systems companies, twice the number that were in attendance five years ago. From niche businesses to national brokers, third-party companies have recognized the value of this side of the industry.
“10 years ago, brewing wasn’t really big into this and you could get wine barrels for dirt-cheap if they weren’t being given away,” says Skyler Weekes, president of Rocky Mountain Barrel Company. “Now I’ve heard of wineries unloading them for $40 or as much as $200.”
Rising costs haven’t slowed interest. Since opening in 2010, Rocky Mountain has amassed a customer list that has exceeded 400 breweries in the span of a decade, with requests increasing as fast as the number of breweries has grown. In that timespan, the U.S. has added about 5,600 breweries. And while there’s always a need to mind a bottom line, these businesses are still paying to stock cellars with barrels of all costs.
Prices fluctuate for a host of reasons, from geography and spirit makers’ production levels to specialty and rarity. At Rocky Mountain Barrel, costs range widely: from $145 for an Early Times whiskey barrel to $169 for one from Woodford Reserve; from $189 for an eight-year-old, single-use Barbados rum barrel to $489 for a 350-liter XO cognac cask. Red wine, whiskey and bourbon barrels generally run on the lower end of the price spectrum due to their relative availability, while speciality fortified wine and spirit barrels like port, sherry, and even aquavit ramp up costs considerably.
Final costs can differ depending on the size of orders, too. Price decreases start with orders of 12 barrels or more, and include a more dramatic drop when orders exceed 40 barrels, which ranges from 5-50%. Rocky Mountain offers an entirely different price list when full truckloads are ordered, due to volume purchased, and those quantities see discounts of 30-40%.
How those costs transfer to customers is another consideration entirely. Established barrel programs, or ones that are run by large local or regional breweries, come with the benefit of economy of scale. That doesn’t mean that bottles of a Wild Ale or mixed-fermentation Saison will cost less than a six-pack, but the transfer of price from brewery to buyer is something to consider as more businesses see this area of production as an opportunity to entice drinkers.
Colorado’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, for example, offers both its Sour Rosé (a Wild Ale fermented in oak with raspberries and blueberries) and Vieille (a Saison aged in oak) in six-packs of 12oz cans in stores across its almost 20-state distribution footprint.
“I do feel like there’s a bigger place for sour beer,” Crooked Stave owner Chad Yakobson told GBH last year, pointing toward language, education, and packaging as keys to getting consumers interested. “Where does that come from? How does that happen? We have to work for acceptance.”
Naturally, there’s also the matter of price point. On its own, cost can create interest or immediate dismissal of a brand in the minds of consumers. Shoppers in North Carolina, for example, will have no trouble finding a range of prices for Wicked Weed’s lineup of wild/sour/mixed-fermentation offerings, from about $13 for fruited Farmhouse Ales with Brettanomyces to $15 or $16 for 500ml bottles of barrel-aged Sour Ales made with blackberries and raspberries, or tropical fruits.
Soon enough, two "foeder-rested, Brettanomyces Farmhouse Ales,” Garçon de Ferme and Ferme de Chien, will appear in grocery stores. Thanks to its growing economy of scale, Wicked Weed is now better positioned to expand and chase the "North Star" of the barrel-aged beer category, says co-founder Walt Dickinson. There is "really a big potential for growing the category," he says, because his company can now find profitability in a larger scale.
"The more you make of it the more cost-effective it is," Dickinson said in March during Good Beer Hunting's Foeder for Thought event at Green Bench Brewing Company in St. Petersburg, Florida. "We're a fairly large brewer at this point, and we can get things to make sense on that level. But we’re also talking about two-to-three-month beers. We're not talking about Lambic here."
These dynamics all factor into how Archetype kicked off its barrel-aged beer program. The brewery opted to package in 375ml, cork-and-cage bottles instead of 500 or 750, to emphasize more affordable price points. Prices for Archetype’s first two offerings began at $8 (for Devil's Nest Belgian Tripel) and $10 (for Liber Novus Belgian Red Ale).
"You're not going to take a loss on anything, but if we can bring the price down a little and have more people try them, it means they won't sit on a shelf because we went with a more 'traditional' package and charge $5 or $10 more," says Anan. "If we're trying to tell our story and want others to enjoy these beers as part of it, part of that is making our product accessible to a wider range of people."
Atlanta, Georgia’s Monday Night Brewing Company is also weighing up similar questions. The brewery plans to release between 40–60 unique brands from its Black Tie and Garage series of barrel-aged beers in 2019, keeping in mind the need to remain competitive in the market as a whole, not just against other double-digit-priced barreled beers. Since its start, Garage Series’ releases have clocked in between $12–$14, whether for a 12oz four-pack of Bourbon Barrel Drafty Kilt (a Scotch Ale aged in bourbon barrels) or a 500ml bottle of Pervasive Species (an American Wild Ale).
While price is a starting point, attracting and retaining customers requires something more. The sheer availability of barrels means that finding ways to separate one brewery’s program from another’s is increasingly essential.
Peter Kiley, brewmaster and resident barrel expert for Monday Night, says he doesn’t like to “buy the ‘idea’ of a barrel,” so in-person meetings and an ability to inspect the casks that come to the brewery are key. Regional trips allow him to answer that challenge by visiting Kentucky, California, Washington, Oregon, Ohio, Georgia, and Vermont. He’s also traveled to France, Italy, and Spain to build connections with wineries and get a leg up on the competition by sourcing barrels from specific makers that nobody else can get ahold of.
Kiley estimates Monday Night has spent around $60,000 to build its program at The Garage, a space that housed around 400 barrels at the end of 2018 and should double that amount this year. He suspects most barrels he buys in 2019 will be in the $145–$250 range, depending on the kind of barrel and its previous life, and he’s on track to spend a little over $100,000 on barrel purchases this year.
Building a collection of barrels at Monday Night hasn’t come without its difficulties.
Kiley recalls that, one year, he worked with a barrel broker to procure 12 of a group of 30 18-year Scotch barrels. He was willing to pay any cost. So were others, because after he mentioned his excitement to in-state colleagues, two of the 12 barrels were unexpectedly sold off elsewhere. A connection-of-a-connection presumably went back to the broker, shared his intel, and paid a higher price.
“It wasn’t a dog move, but I realized that I was very open about my relationships that can be leverages with other people who haven’t jumped over the kind of hurdles I have to build those relationships,” he says. “I appreciate people being savvy, but I can’t be giving away the cheat codes.”
This is, of course, an extreme anecdote, and doesn’t reflect the typical barrel-sourcing strategies of Kiley or many of his peers. Starting a barrel program isn’t generally a cutthroat practice full of corporate espionage. It’s a mixture of financial commitment, luck, and building relationships where you can.
“Sourcing was and remains about a patchwork of relationships with brokers and businesses,” says Joe Connolly, director of Springdale Barrel Room, a spin-off of Framingham, Massachusetts’ Jack’s Abby. “With a lot more people buying barrels, it’s a competitive place.”
Connolly has a strong connection to Hall Wines in St. Helena, California, where he’ll source French oak and pinot noir barrels. He bought about 80 in mid-2017, as Springdale was building out its cellar in preparation for ramping up volume to enter distribution.
During that time, he also benefited from a unique opportunity: giving bourbon barrels an additional lease on life, following their use in Jack’s Abby’s Framinghammer Baltic Porter lineup of beers. In recent years, a total of about 1,200 barrels have been purchased or transferred to Springdale’s program.
“It’s been invaluable to not only have the collection of barrels, but people who knew how to work with them, too,” Connolly says. “I have so much respect for those who walk into building a brewery without having the shoulders to stand on as we did. I don’t know how we would have done it from the start.”
With the ability to get so much volume into the market, there's an added responsibility to maximize education and excitement around the barrel-aged beer category. Connolly is quick to admit that the single-serve bottle format that Springdale and so many other breweries use for these beers is no longer as attractive to customers as it once was. There's also the need to talk to non-beer-geek customers, and assure them that the final product isn't just bourbon-flavored beer, or an acid bomb ready to strip enamel off teeth.
"You remember when you've had a bad $25 bottle of beer," he says. "We're not only building a brand here, but thinking about it as one big brand that represents an entire category and occasions."
"You never want someone to be curious, pay more money than they're used to, and then think, 'Shit, maybe I don't like that category,’" he adds.
What it comes back to, as it often does, is making beer unique. You can lead a drinker to the bottle shop, but to succeed, you need them to come back for more. Today, that means brewers are going beyond bourbon or wine barrels.
When starting its program, Archetype initially forged a connection with Rocky Mountain Barrel Company, which took the lead on logistics and shipped a mix of French and American oak. The barrels included a variety of profiles, from fine-grain to different levels of “toast”—the char inside each barrel. Those aspects all impact process, flavor, and how to approach aging a beer inside.
Archetype co-founder Steven Anan said the initial connection was an important collaboration as much as a business transaction, and it gave him the chance to better understand which unique casks his company could consider down the road. Barrel brokers “are the way to go for a variety, one-stop-shop-type of procurement,” he says, and creating those relationships could mean sourcing more exotic barrels down the line, whether direct from a winery, distillery, or a broker.
“Five or six years ago, people didn’t care about what kind of bourbon barrel they were getting—they just wanted a wet bourbon barrel,” says Skyler Weekes, president of Rocky Mountain Barrel. “Now it’s about niche, craft options. When everyone has a bourbon barrel-aged Stout, the way to separate yourself from competition is to find the special and unique options that can create a different aroma and taste profile.”
Rocky Mountain’s portfolio features almost 40 different kinds of barrels from about 30 different countries. There’s a 12-year old Pedro Ximénez sherry barrel from Spain; an 18-year old, single-use Laphroaig Single Malt cask from Scotland; and Caribbean rum barrels of various ages. Domestically, Weekes and his team also field lots of questions about micro distilleries, as breweries recognize the value in connecting to small producers in the U.S.
For Anan, who operates in beer-focused Asheville, creating a successful and competitive barrel program means embracing novelty.
“Wicked Weed does funky and sour beers very well, and I don’t think there are many people who would debate that,” he says. “When considering this step for our business, we considered if it was redundant locally or if people would give a shit.”
Along with a collection of barrel-aged Saisons, Anan is eyeing port and rum barrels for use in dark, sour, and wild beers. Like so many of his peers, he has a strong interest in moving beyond bourbon barrels to explore different and nuanced flavors.
“With barrels, like any other kind of ingredient, it’s about using everything you have with intention,” he says. “It’s how we’re working to carve out our niche.”