As Barrel-Aging Trends Up, Brewers Go Below

Founders Brewing Co. has undergone a number of expansions in Grand Rapids over the past 20 years, each at its authentic brewery and taproom in addition to at a brand new facility that makes a speciality of barrel-aged beers. The brewery’s progress has been simple to see for locals and vacationers visiting the town, however one in every of its greatest areas of enlargement is hidden from public view.

About three miles away from the brewery, and much beneath the streets of Grand Rapids, 14,000 barrels of beer quietly age.

(Photo courtesy Founders Brewing Co.)

The barrels are situated in former gypsum mines as soon as owned by the Alabastine Mining Company, and now by Michigan Natural Storage. The mines preserve a gradual temperature of 50 levels Fahrenheit or decrease, which makes them preferrred for storing various merchandise—particularly beer.

“The stage that we’re on, we’re 85 toes beneath the floor of the earth and it’s about 38 million years outdated,” says brewery co-founder Dave Engbers. “I requested in the event that they discovered fossils or stuff like that, and so they stated the place we had been predates any dwelling organisms. The ceiling is below an outdated lake mattress.”

The brewery saved its first barrels within the mines round 2004 or 2005, estimates Engbers. Founders had began getting older beers in barrels just some years earlier than, and shortly after the barrels had been taking over house on the brewery that wanted for use for added fermentation capability.

Many of Founders Brewing Co.’s best-known beers are aged in former gypsum mines. (Photo courtesy Founders Brewing Co.)

Engbers and co-founder Mike Stevens had a pal at Michigan Natural Storage who proposed getting older barrels there, which made lots of sense given the ability’s proximity to the Grand Rapids brewery. Now, a number of the brewery’s most well-known beers—like KBS and Backwoods Bastard—spend time maturing within the mines.

The underground getting older program at Founders could also be novel, however getting older beer underground is nothing new. Whether artifical or pure, extra brewers are going underground with their barrel-aging applications.

A Return to Tradition

In the times earlier than refrigeration, brewers—particularly these specializing in lagers, which ferment at decrease temperatures than ales—sought out underground areas to age their beers. It was a standard apply at breweries throughout Europe, and when German immigrants constructed breweries within the United States, lots of them appeared for underground cellars that would present the cooler temperatures wanted.

August Schell was one such brewer. Schell left Germany for the United States in 1848, and in 1860 constructed the Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. Schell had cavernous cellars beneath the brewery dug out, creating an area to retailer barrels of the brewery’s lager.

Jace Marti remembers cleansing out the caves as a boy—and never fondly.

“I feel that was a kind of issues that my dad did a little bit as punishment, but in addition as an initiation factor,” recollects Marti with fun. “There was no mild down there, it was terrifying as a child.”

Now, as a sixth-generation brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Co., he makes use of the caves to age his personal beers. In 2015, the brewery reopened the caves, the place presently 55-56 bourbon barrels reside.

The caves at August Schell Brewing Co. (Photo courtesy August Schell Brewing Co.)

True to the brewery’s heritage, these barrels virtually all the time comprise lagers of some type—although they’re fairly completely different from the kinds August Schell brewed so a few years earlier than. The base beers, says Marti, generally don’t match neatly into fashion pointers, however normally they’re a “massive, malty lager within the 10 % vary.”

The caves usually keep within the higher 30 levels within the winter, and might attain 50 levels in the summertime. Marti says that the variations in temperature between the seasons imparts variations within the character of the beers—particularly, that in the summertime months the hotter temperatures assist extract extra taste from the barrels.

“I feel what we’re making an attempt to attain is greater than a typical lager beer,” says Marti. “Having some variations in temperature is sweet for what we’re doing. A number of the yeast is just about gone, and now we’re simply making an attempt to select up residual spirit character and barrel character. It’s very completely different than what we had been making an attempt to perform 100 years in the past.”

The Challenges of Aging Underground

Having entry to a subterranean house, whereas uncommon, is only the start for breweries wishing to age underground. The unpaved flooring, jagged partitions and inconsistent dimensions of those areas typically necessitate a extra labor-intensive course of than merely storing barrels in a warehouse.

Michigan Natural Storage renovated its gypsum mines with elevators and concrete flooring, however getting barrels to the ability nonetheless requires lots of work from Founders.

“The barrels are on racks in order that they get unloaded from our facility, then introduced over to their facility,” says Engbers. “And then they’ve obtained two industrial elevators. All of that provides to the fee and the labor.”

But a minimum of Engbers has forklifts, and racks on which to retailer the barrels. The caves at August Schell Brewing Co. aren’t as accommodating.

“It’s a monumental ache,” says Marti. “We have to make use of completely different sections of the cave. We take half of the barrels in from one entrance, and the opposite half by one other.”

Laborious although that that course of is, work was a lot tougher for the generations of brewers that got here earlier than Marti. In the late 19th century, groups would minimize ice blocks from the close by Cottonwood River and pull them by horse up the hill and into the cellars, the place the ice would assist preserve the mandatory temperatures to lager the beers by hotter months.

Marti’s brother tried to copy the expertise as soon as, pulling the outdated ice tong’s proper off the wall of the brewery’s museum. He went right down to the river with a chainsaw and lugged a block into the cellars, solely to see it soften in a matter of days.

“We received’t be doing that once more,” says Marti.

And, in fact, one other problem with regards to getting older underground is having the house within the first place. Not each brewery is situated miles away from mines that go far beneath the Earth’s floor, or above cavernous cellars.

At Santa Fe Brewing Co., founder Brian Lock determined to make his personal underground cellars, although “underground” right here is used a little bit extra loosely.

“They’re not very far underground, they’re inside a bermed hill that they’re put up in opposition to,” says Lock. “But they do get lots of the thermal consistency from being underground. The temperatures are fairly secure, which is nice for barrel getting older beer.”

Lock had six transport containers leftover after constructing his taproom in Albuquerque, and wished to place them to good use on the Santa Fe location. So they dug out the hill and positioned the containers on concrete footings, then sprayed insulation and backfilled across the containers.

(Photo courtesy Santa Fe Brewing Co.)

The brewery is situated within the excessive desert, notes Lock, however with an elevation of seven,000 toes it’s cooler than many individuals notice. The six 40-feet-long containers keep at a reasonably constant 60-65 levels Fahrenheit in the summertime. In the winter, the brewery makes use of house heaters to make sure the containers don’t get too chilly.

The underground portion is used to age the brewery’s bitter beers, and there’s a small tasting room for sampling. In the longer term, says Lock, there shall be a cave bar that the brewery will open up for particular events.

The Future is Dark

Despite the challenges that include getting older beers underground, there are breweries keen to hold on the custom. Earthbound Beer opened final yr in St. Louis, Missouri, a metropolis that’s no stranger to underground cellars; Anheuser-Busch and Lemp Brewery each had been constructed above the tunnels of a pure cave system. Earthbound inherited cellars of its personal, because it now occupies the previous Cherokee Brewery house. While the nascent brewery has however a number of barrels stowed away for the time being, the homeowners do have plans to increase their cellars (with the opportunity of bringing a foeder and coolship beneath as properly).

Even breweries that don’t have pure caves working beneath the property are experimenting with underground getting older. Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, New York, as soon as stowed away Hennepin and different beers in Howe Caverns of upstate New York. Though the brewery not ages beer on the caverns, the partnership might serve to encourage different breweries.

Wabasha Brewing Co. is situated lower than half a mile from the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul, Minnesota, and truly produces a beer by the title of Cave Stout, with imperial and bourbon-barrel-aged variants. The plan has all the time been to age that beer within the close by the caves, says co-founder and head brewer Brett Erickson. While he has acquired permission to take action from the caves, Erickson needs to attend till the brewery’s barrel-aging program has grown earlier than transferring any manufacturing.

And though Founders has an astonishing 14,000 barrels of beer getting older within the former gypsum mines, there might even be room there for a number of extra gamers.

“This was sort of our little secret after some time,” says Engbers. “Then the phrase obtained out and subsequent factor you already know there’s a pair different breweries that retailer stuff down right here.”

For Engbers, it is perhaps simple sufficient to retailer hundreds of barrels beneath the streets of Grand Rapids. Hiding them is one other factor altogether.

Daniel Hartis is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.



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