Editor's note: This is the first in what will be a series on Indiana brewers/cellarmen and their approach to barrel aging. Our goal is to have a conversation and provide some background on what works, what doesn't, and what keeps him/her excited when things take 1-3 years to finalize.
In Mid-January, we got the chance to spend a couple hours with Sun King's lead cellarman, Mark Poffenberger ("Poff"). Poff was Sun King's first full-time employee in October of 2009 and is one of the few employees to have a beer brewed with their namesake. For more background on Poff, here is the How Did I Get Here? feature from the SK Blog in February 2012.
In 2011 and 2012, Sun King earned a combined ten medals at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and three awards from the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FOBAB) which signify a top three placing for the category of beer entered. We asked Poff about the awards and his reply was exactly what you want to hear, he said, "The medals are fun, but this is ultimately about what we want to drink."
In early 2012, Sun King took over part of the grey building on the south east corner of the current lot at 135 north College. The building previously housed a cabinet maker, so a large sawdust cleaning effort was in order. After the rafters were cleaned and the floor stabilized, they installed two walk-in coolers, a small brite tank, and the experimental 16oz aluminum bottle filling line. One cooler is used for barrel aging and the other is used for the experimental funk (not always sour). The day after our visit, Mark was on his way to Buffalo Trace to pick up more barrels that will bring the barrel-aging cooler to about 200 barrels. The funk room has roughly 60 barrels as well. The oldest barrel in the facility is a scotch barrel that is about 35 years-old followed by some 21 year-old Jamaican Rum barrels that could see Wee Mac.
As we stood around the barrel room, Matt, Rodney, and I asked Poff a few questions and gained some awesome knowledge.
HBG: This room smells incredible.
Poff: "It does. It is a little cold right now, because I have the temperature turned down, but I love it.
HBG: Do you vary the temperature to help push/pull the beer in/out of the wood?
HBG: How hard is it to get barrels and what condition are they usually in when they show up?
Poff: "I have a great relationship with the guy at Buffalo Trace and am actually headed down there tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday to pick up about 30 barrels. He gives me a call and lets me know what they are going to have, so I don't have that much trouble getting barrels. The barrels are usually in pretty good shape when we get them."
Poff: "First, we dump the remaining alcohol and then give it a hot water rinse."
HBG: I noticed there aren't any air locks on the barrels in here.
Poff: "Yeah, there should not be any extra fermentation going in here, so I do not use them. Any fermentation going on in here is a bad thing."
HBG: How do you determine what beer goes in what barrels?
Poff: "The combination of the beer and the barrel has a lot to do with the malt characteristic of the beer and the char/toast level of the barrel."
Editor Note: Poff talked extensively about how it takes longer to break through the malt character in certain beers so he does pair the beer with the barrel from different distilleries based on the characteristics he wants to add. His main aim is to use the barrels to soften some aspects, enhance others, and add the vanilla/carmel notes that we all enjoy in bourbon. He focuses on balancing the beer instead of inundating it with the flavor of the spirit.
HBG: How far out do you plan your filling schedule?
Poff: "Because our production schedule is so tight in the brewery right now, I plan 2-4 months in advance."
HBG: How often do you taste test a barrel?
Poff: "It depends on the barrel. Based on experience, I know about how long certain beers should take to be ready, so I will check them to see where they are then I write on the calendar when I think they need to be checked next."
HBG: Once you determine a beer is ready to be packaged, do you take it to the weekly QA/QC meeting?
HBG: You guys are filling Bourbon Barrel Johan bottles tomorrow. Some breweries say that they release their beers when they are ready to drink and not to age them, while others say to drink it now or let it age a bit. Any advice for those getting cans of Johan?
Poff: "You can age it, but it has been aged already. The beer was brewed in 2009 and sat in a barrel until 2010. It tastes fantastic now."
After that chat, we walked over to the funk room
Poff: "Some are, but they also come from wineries who usually take a little more care with their barrels."
HBG: Is the nail in the head of the barrels a more traditional thing or is there some magic to it?
Poff: "That actually allows the pellicle that forms to stay in tact. You can break it up, but you want to avoid that."
HBG: Are you doing mostly secondary fermentation in this room then?
Poff: "Yes. We are mostly experimenting with Wee Mac and Cream Ale. I take the barrels over and have them filled as they come out of the fermentor and then we bring them over here and pitch with either Brett or Lacto. I have a couple barrels that we are doing primary with Brett, but mostly secondary."
HBG: Any spontaneous fermentation?
Poff: "I did take one barrel, put a bunch of Raspberries in it, and put it out under a tree in an apple orchard for four days. I am really excited to see where that one goes."
HBG: You mentioned in the other cooler that you guys had a pretty good formula for matching beers with barrels, how about over here?
Poff: "This is very much still an experiment. Like with the barrel I put out in the orchard, we are still learning."
HBG: One of the biggest questions we hear and see people ask is why more of this stuff doesn't hit the market. Do you guys plan to release more in the future?
Poff: "You know, there just isn't that much of it to go around right now. We like to take it to festivals and beer dinners mostly, but we are getting more volume in the barrels now that we have this building. For example, next year's BA Wee Mac will be double what we have this year."
HBG: What keeps you excited about working with barrels. With the long lead time before you can see the end product, what drives you and what goals do you have for the program?
Poff: "It is tough to be patient. A number of these projects take two or three years before they are ready and that is a long time to wait. The biggest thing is that I want to change the notion that Brett = sour, funky horse blanket in a number of people's minds."
Since this interview, Sun King released Velvet Fog and Bourbon Barrel Johan that sold out in a matter of weeks. They also received label approval to put BA Wee Mac into the King's Reserve cans. There are already a number of festivals scheduled for this year, so stay tuned to the Sun King social media streams to see when/where you will be able to sample some of Poff's work. Every one that I have had has been fantastic.
Thanks again Mark and the Sun King team for letting us wander and ask a few questions along the way.
Also, thanks to Matt and Rodney for taking the pictures for this post: