25 February 2013

Talking Wood: Josh Hambright

Jake Wrote:

Last week, we had a chance to catch up with Josh Hambright of Flat12 Bierwerks. Josh was nice enough to pull some samples and talk about how the program has grown in the last two years. He started with Flat 12 in 2010 and helped with the final stages of build out before they opened in late December that year. Josh went from cleaning kegs, to cleaning tanks, to the brew deck over the next 10 months. Josh is now the second in command in the back of house working closely with Co-owner/Head brewer Rob Caputo on managing and scheduling production as well as recipe developement, but takes the lead on the barrel program.

HBG: Tell us about the barrels on the pallet. New arrivals?
Josh: Those are Canadian Whiskey that we got in recently. This year's Big Black Dog will be aged in those instead of the Rye barrels that we used last year.

HBG: So which barrels are the ones that have the bunghole both on the end (top) and side?
Josh: Those are Appelton Estates Rum (Jamaican). We think they are one of the more premium versions, but we are not sure which age specifically.

HBG: Any idea why they would drill again in the top?
Josh: It is a different way of warehousing. These were Jack Daniels barrels before being used for Rum. They drill a new bung in the head of a barrel so they can be stored on pallets in warehouses rather then on their sides. Pretty Rad but they love to leak everywhere.

HBG: How many barrels do you have currently?
Josh: About 80 currently. At this time two years ago, we got our first two. We didn't even have racks until a year ago.

HBG: How do you determine what barrel you want to use? Do you have a preferred spirit and/or distiller that you use? 
Josh: It depends on what beer we have and what barrels are available. It's mostly that I have a beer I want to put in a barrel and then determining if that is Rum or Brandy or Wine, etc. From there I contact one of our brokers or the distillery directly. A lot of this is still very experimental for us so I like to try out different barrels with the same beer to see what happens. We get our wine barrels from Easely Winery because they use oak from the Hoosier National Forrest. My dream would be an all Indiana (Hops, Malt, Yeast, Oak) barrel aged beer.

HBG: Other than having to deal with a side bung, what condition are the barrels generally in when you get them and how do you get them ready?
Josh: We usually give the outside a rinse to get the rust and barrel house grime off. Wine barrels are usually dry, so we soak them for 24 hours to swell them and then fill them. With the bourbon barrels, I don't rinse them instead I just dump whatever remaining spirit is in them. The water is just one more potential contaminant.

HBG: I notice that there is a fill sheet attached to most of the barrels and some have "Previous Fill" marked with other beers you guys make. What's the strategy there?
Josh: We do re-use barrels. For example, Mustache Ride and Van Pogue both use vanilla beans. So we will rack the Mo Ride and then fill them with porter and add some new vanilla beans. If we have added cocoa nibs or chilis, we usually don't re-use it. For example, the Owd Gordo is this year's Replicale and I really wanted to barrel age that entire batch. It just happened that we were racking the KGBaylor (Pappy Van Winkle Pinko), so we had the Pappy barrels to fill.

HBG: What are the major differences you see between the first and second use of a barrel?
Josh: That first run, you're going to get the bourbon flavor. On the second run, you don't really get as much bourbon, you get more oak. After three fills, you're not going to get much. You also have to age them longer each time to get the extraction. I am of the mindset that you don't have to give everything a year in a barrel. Some of the beers we do are as little as two months.

HBG: There are some barrels in the cooler and some out here. What have you learned about temperature fluctuation helping the aging process?
Josh: We have experimented with moving barrels in and out every few days and you can really speed up the process but its not something we do regularly. Also, the production area of the brewery is not air conditioned, so we get the natural fluctuation as well. Typically we move the barrel into the cooler before we rack it to get that last bit of flavor extraction. Some of our beers, like Moustache Ride spend the entire time in the cooler. With two of our seasonal releases being barrel aged this year (Moustache Ride and Van Pogue), we are going to have larger batches and will do some more experimenting. Van Pogue is actually getting released next month (March).

HBG: So with the variety of barrels you have, how do you know when certain beers are going to be ready?
Josh: Tasting. It is all sensory. I know if I want the big vanillans and oak from the barrel, it is going to take longer than if I want some of the bourbony sweetness. Most of the wine barrels are close to neutral, so it takes a while to get the remaining oak, you mainly get the wine characters, tannins and some oxidation. We have worked with Easley Winery to try and get some younger barrels that will have more oak flavor left in them and are trying winter cycle in a three year instead of a five year barrel like we did previously. I really like using the 8-10 year old bourbon barrels that we get from Buffalo Trace and some other distillers.  I think that range gives the most classic Bourbon Barrel Aged character to most beers. Pinko was the first beer that we brewed especially for barrels. We wanted this way over the top Russian Imperial Stout that's way too hoppy and way too boozy and everything to 11 so it was still strong coming out of the barrels. Black Dog was also brewed with barrels in mind. It wasn't brewed specifically for the barrels, but we wanted to put a bunch in there.

HBG: You guys have clearly found a use for Brandy barrels. What can you tell us?
Josh: I think Brandy barrels do awesome things with beers. They do great things with hoppy beers and are dirt cheap compared to bourbon barrels right now. You're not going to get a bunch of oak out of them, but the brandy flavor plays really well with hops. For example, Brandy Walkabout was awesome (Agreed).

HBG: You have a combination of hard bungs and air locks in the racks. What's the difference?
Josh: The beers are already cold crashed in the brite tank before they go into the barrel, so there is some CO2 in the beer. I usually give it a month with the air lock to let the CO2 release. Unless it's turning funky or still fermenting, then I leave them on as a reminder. We are also going to start using the Vinnie nails (Nails in the head of the barrel) to make tasting easier.

HBG: Tell us about the funk that you have going
Josh: I am of the mindset that all wood contains bugs, it is just how controlled they are. Every time you re-fill the barrel, you are playing Russian Roulette with bugs. You're just increasing the chance of getting bugs exponentially. Up until the last few months, anything we tasted that was funky got dumped immediately, but we are more comfortable with it now. We are not sure what we are going to do with them yet, but since we lease our cooperage (kegs), I am not a fan of putting funk out into the system and getting them back or getting someone else's keg back that had funk and not knowing it. We are exploring options, but don't have release plans right now. Also, all of this is naturally occurring. We have not pitched any yeast nor bacteria into the barrels. There is all this stuff floating in the air and in the wood constantly. As long as you have solid sanitization practices, it will never get into the beers. But, for example, grain dust has lactobacillus. So, you can either accept it or you run screaming, burn the barrels, and never look back.

HBG: I remember New Day Meadery bringing "Vicious Cycle" to Winterfest and in the write up, they mentioned an exchange program for barrels that you guys are doing. What can you tell us about that?
Josh: I don't remember who pitched who, but it was around the first time we released Half Cycle Reserve. Brett (Canaday, co-owner of New Day) asked what we had planned for the barrel when we were done and we were just going to get rid of it, so he asked about using it. He wound up putting a straight cider into it for 11-ish months. So we now have it back and have put Half Cycle back into it to see what happens. We didn't dry hop the Half Cycle this time, so it should be interesting. It is either going to have the acetaldehyde off flavor of green apple or it could be really rad. We'll see. We also got a few of the Imperial Magpie barrels that just got filled last week, they smelled awesome while filling and I look forward to what will be coming out of them in the future. They have some of our other barrels now (Buffalo Trace, Pappy van Winkle), so it is going to be fun to watch the program grow.

HBG: Since you're still very experimental, are most of your batches 1-2 barrels or larger?
Josh: We are either filling 1-2 oak barrels or 6-8+ oak barrels. The smaller batches we have to blend into kegs, but the larger batches we can use the brite tank. I want to do more, but we just don't have the room. As you can see, I have to hide barrels wherever we can fit them right now. We have Pinko in rum and a couple of others still. Plus, we just did a larger batch of Nunmoere into Harrison barrels that they used for the Presidential Blend. The fun thing about Barrel Aged Nunmoere is that the barrel version is actually blended with fresh brewed and barrel aged so you get the fresh hop notes and the oak/bourbon notes.

HBG: With blending the Nunmoere, have you ever blended two different beers from the barrels?
Josh: We have played with it when we are sampling a bunch of different things at the same time, but we haven't found anything yet to release on a larger scale. We did do the Cuttlefish Cuvee which was a bunch of different versions of Walkabout. I am actually working on another version of that as well.

HBG: What beer(s) are you most excited about?
Josh: Well, there is some Walkabout that somehow found Brettanomyces ("Brett") that you guys should try. We are probably bringing this with us to Upland Sour Fest (May 11th). This will not be part of the next version of Cuttlefish but will be released separately. We are experimenting with some primary fermentation in the barrels with belgian strains, but using the barrels instead of stainless steel as the vessel.
Note: We tried it and it is incredible. I hope they don't drink it all at the brewery before May.

HBG: Both you and Poff mentioned wanting to change the perception of what Brett can do in a beer. Kind of wanting to prove that Brett does not equal funky horse blanket rolled in moldy cheese. 
Josh: This (Brett Walkabout) is what I wish people would think of when they think of Brett. There is some of the earthy characteristics and then you get the over-ripe fruit. Not rotten, but that last couple of days where you can really smell the flavor.

HBG: Do you have plans to intentionally sour beers in the future?
Josh: Yes, but not here. We are so maxed out on our production schedule that we do not have time to re-make anything and keep up with demand, that we cannot afford to take risks putting sour stuff through our production tanks and equipment.

HBG: When we started thinking about this series, we realized that there are not many people in Indiana that have experience with barrel aging. It feels like everyone is learning together.
Josh: Absolutely. There aren't very many people in the US that are truly experienced with barrels. The guys up at Jolly Pumpkin know barrels. (John) Laffler knows barrels. Chad Yakobson from Crooked Stave and Vinnie at Russian River are really pushing the sour side. The guys in southern Indiana and Kentucky (Against the Grain, New Albanian) have been playing with barrels for a long time when they were at Bluegrass Brewing Company. The beer world is really rediscovering oak.

HBG: How did you decide to start working on a barrel program? A love of bourbon flavor in general or other stuff?
Josh: I have always been more of a Canadian and Irish whiskey fan than a bourbon fan, until I started playing with barrels. Other than Sun King, I didn't see anyone else doing high volume in barrels. There are a number of places doing one or two barrel, but there are very few breweries that send their stuff out into the market for distribution and I am really proud of that.

HBG: Realistically, how much of this is going to see the tasting room verses special events like festivals and tap takeovers?
Josh: We put the Pappy Van Winkle Pinko on the growler fill station for an entire weekend. Moustahce Ride and Van Pogue are in our seasonal release schedule for 2013, so quite a bit will see taps that are not festivals and beer dinners. We are really proud of those beers and want to get them out there to share with people. The bigger batches that we put into the brite tank, will go out to market.

HBG: Who do you see at the top of their game right now with barrels?
Josh: Off the top of my head, Founders. The scale on which they release barrel aged stuff is just incredible. Firestone Walker the same way. Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, and Crooked Stave are doing incredible stuff. The boys down at Against the Grain are doing great stuff as well. I know the Against the Grain guys share my belief that a beer does not have to be in the barrel for a long time to be "Barrel Aged". I think what Laffler did at Goose Island changed the game for what can be done with beer and barrels. New Belgium's wood cellar is also ridiculous. Bell's has a quote, "Some Artists work in stone, some artists work in paint, some artists work in malt and hops." I see oak as one of those tools that we can use to paint. I respect the hell out of the guys who currently use those tools. We may not use them in the same way, but we are using the same tools. Surly does a great job with their brett stuff. It's not necessarily wood aged, they use wine barrels for Pentagram, but it is more brett than wine that is a component. I fell in love with that beer at GABF.

HBG: With the breweries you just named they cover the spectrum from stout to sour. Given the choice, where would you focus on the spectrum?
Josh: I think everybody focuses on stouts because they are easy and it is what we did early. But, some of my favorite beers we have done are Barrel Aged Amber and Barrel Aged 12 Penny (3.4% Scottish Ale). When we made KGBaylor, it wasn't really hard to put a big stout in a barrel and have it come out tasting pretty good. But, when we put non-dry hopped Half Cycle in a Brandy Barrel, that's a bit of a different ball game. It's the idea that when I go into a brewery, I do not order their IPA. If they have a bitters, I order that first then a porter or a fruit beer. Its a lot harder to hide behind the flavors of a smaller beer then it is behind the flavors of a big IPA or Imperial Stout. One of my favorite beers that we did was Blanco El Diablo Roble ("The White Devil Oak") last year. We took our Blanco el Diablo (Blonde Ale with Chilis) and put it in third use barrels.

HBG: What lessons learned can you share with us?
Josh: Even if you are only racking one barrel, you have to blend it. I learned that with the original batch of Moustache Ride. Especially with vanilla beans floating on the top and the liquid on the sides getting more wood character, you need to blend. Blending is the key to everything with wood.

HBG: What are some barrels that you want to work with in the future?
Josh: Port barrels for sure. they're just really expensive to get by the time they get shipped. Black Rum would be cool too and maybe Saki.
HBG: What would you put in Saki?
Josh: A Wheat wine or a Rye wine would be rad.

You can follow Josh on Twitter at @Flat12_Josh and Flat12 Bierwerks at @Flat12Bierwerks


  1. Exciting series! Great work so far, can't wait for the next installment!

    1. Thanks Kyle. We have a few more planned and will see where it goes from there. Stay tuned.