Monday, 25 April 2016

Barrels of fun

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that his grandmother was getting rid of two old oak barrels previously used for making Most, the local version of apple wine or cider. Rather than seeing them dumped, I made an offer, and finally collected them last Friday evening. They were still filled with Most right up to a few hours before I picked them up, Most that was, I was told, nine years old, and very, very dark.
I'm not sure how old they are, but I was pleasantly surprised at the condition they were in, and they smelled like an old, tannic wine, rather than vinegar, so a great start. My friend Jonas had thoughtfully rinsed them out, but had kept a jar of the yeasty sludge from the bottom, but I'm not sure I'll be using it.

Capacity-wise, one is marked as 150 litres, and the other as 135. The design is interesting, being oval, or rather elliptical, in section, and each has a large opening on the bottom front. The opening is closed by a piece of wood clearly simply cut from the lid, with a camber, such that when it is tightened, using the brass bolt passing through this "lid", is makes a tight seal. But it was also smeared in a waxy-feeling substance, that I first thought was silicone, but turned out to be a paraffin-based sealant, specifically designed for this kind of use. The lid also has a hole for a spigot, but I think I'll be buying new ones.

The next day I got a loan of an industrial-sized steam generator/pressure cleaner. Having the pressure set low, and the temp at 110 degrees, I went over the interior a few times, and am satisfied they are well clean. This also cleared off the waxy layer around the opening, though I had to do a bit of scraping on the lids themselves, to get back down to the wood.

One thing that did give me pause, though, was the speckles of greenish stuff that I first feared was mold on the bottom of both barrels. They didn't come off, and in fact were kind of glassy. I finally realised it was probably residue from burning sulphur strips, of which I inherited a few wrapped in a 1992 newspaper page. They're the same colour as the speckles.

Sulphur residue? Pre-clean.
The big brass bolt that passes though the lid means there is a hole though it, and it seems the way this was closed was to cake the recess for the bolt on the inner side with the sealing wax, and to cap this with a piece of oak. Sadly, whatever was used to secure this piece of wood is gone, so I'll need to sort that out, maybe using stainless steel screws. The pieces of wood are also a little manky, but I'll see how they clean up with a bit of sanding and steaming,

Wax seal over the brass bolt.
Right now, the barrels are sitting in the barn, empty, which I'm sure is not the best for them. I put out a call for advice on Twitter, and got lots of great advice, including from a cooper, who suggested filling with water at more than 80°C and a pint of salt 24 to 48 hours before using again, but given my situation, this is impractical. I would find it very difficult to heat 285 litres of water, and as I won't be using them for some time, I need a way to keep them acetobacter-free and moist for some months. Several people pointed me to articles, and indeed, I also bought Michael Tonsmeire's book on making American Sour Beers, which also advocates using a potassium metabisulphite and Citric Acid solution for long-term storage, which is what I will probably do. I treat my cider with potassium metabisulphite anyway, so I'd be happy with that. The only worry I might have is whether this might leach character from the barrels, so I am open to advice still.

But what will I do with them? I could of course fill them with cider come autumn, or maybe use that as a wash to get distilled for apple brandy, and it might add some character. But as a brewer, the idea of aging beer in them of course appeals. I'd love a whisky cask, but beggars can't be choosers. Some people have said you can never use a cider barrel for anything other than cider, but I guess they haven't tried sour beers or lambics. I can imagine a tartness from cider might match that well, or maybe a Saison. But with my current brew kit, that means seven brews for the bigger barrel! Might be time for an upgrade so!

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