In early March, we had the chance to talk barrels and brewing with Andrew Castner. Andrew is the Head brewer at The RAM Downtown Indianapolis and Fishers locations. Although The RAM is a national chain, Andrew is given license to brew a number of his own recipes on the seasonal side. He has won multiple awards locally and nationally including a GABF medal and two Brew Bracket Championships in 2012 (Amber and Barrel-aged).
HBG: One of the interesting factors we discovered in talking with Josh and Poff was how the barrels are prepped. What is your approach?
AC: You know, that is an interesting one, because it depends on the outcome I am looking for. With a rinse, you lose some of the spirit flavor, but it works really well if you want to push more of the wood characteristics into the beer. But, if you want to get the bourbon notes with the wood tones in the background, then you don't rinse it. We learned this lesson with the Oak-Aged Big Red IPA. I am a big fan of dry hopping in the barrel with our house IPA. The first run we did, we did not rinse. So, it came out bourbon over oak with the dry hop. The second run on that barrel showcased oak and the dry hop. So, if you want that bourbon character in a big imperial stout, don't rinse the barrel. But, if you want some oak flavor with a dry hopped IPA, rinse it.
HBG: How hot does the water need to be for the rinse?
AC: You need to get the barrel as close to 180 degrees as possible. Now, you're not going to kill everything because the water can't get in to every crevice, but you can make it as safe as possible.
HBG: We see a few barrels tucked away, how many do you currently have filled? Are they mostly Bourbon?
AC: We currently have eight filled and are looking to fill a few more. We have been lucky because we have a really good relationship with our liquor distributor (Republic National) [Since the RAM is a Brewpub, they have Liquor on-site]. So, we have mostly Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam. They have been great about partnering with us on events as cross-promotional opportunities. We have mostly bourbon, but have had some wine barrels too. The Barrel Aged Maibock that won Brew Bracket was in a local Harrison Bourbon barrel. I was really happy with the caramel, butterscotch, and vanilla flavors that came through in that one.
HBG: What projects do you have in the works with the barrels on order?
AC: We are hoping to take the ReplicAle (a Strong Ale) from this Winterfest and put it into four different barrels (Bourbon, Port, Rum, and Cider). We are going to fill those barrels and release them singularly plus a master's blend. It should be a fun event. We really like to do educational stuff like comparing the beers young and then aged like we did with the Ramageddon series in 2012.
HBG: Speaking of the Ramageddon series, which was awesome, were you the only location doing that or was it a nationwide thing?
AC: It was just us. Chris [Knott. Assistant Brewer] was really the brains behind that and did most of the recipe creation. We not only got to use it as a teaching tool for our guests, but it allowed us to test some new glassware. Because of that test, the tulip glass has now been adopted nationally, so not only do we get to push some of our customers, but we can also help drive the company a bit too.
HBG: With the eight barrels, are they split up in batches or are they all one-off?
AC: With everything we do, for now, they are going to be one-off. We just don't have the space. We have cleared out space in our parking garage storage area to store a couple barrels out there as well. We could get up to 16, but we are space constrained. Also, we don't have room for a forklift, so we're having to move them around on a dolly.
HBG: You guys are also storing the barrels vertically. Have you had any issues with the bungs coming out of the side?
AC: We have to make sure the bung is in there tightly, but have not had an issue.
HBG: Is eight barrels about the average you try to keep at one time or is that more or less than average?
AC: About four months ago, we were up near 12. We only did one in the first year, but we keep adding to it. The goal is to release a barrel aged beer each month. Since we do not do carry-out beer sales for these premium products, the barrel aged beers last a bit longer than they would in other locations.
HBG: On the note of beers lasting a bit longer on tap, do you think you get hurt at times by having the stigma of a chain?
AC: You guys know I am a huge fan of buying local. But, I do think we get overlooked from time-to-time. My goal is to continue building our seasonal offerings so that when people ask their friends, "Hey, I am staying downtown, where should I go?" That people say, "Go to the RAM and check out the seasonal board." Although we are a national brand, all of our beer is made locally. We do special events like tap takeovers and events. Those have been one of our main goals for the last three years. The RAM has been really great about granting us the freedom to do those fun things for craft beer fans.
HBG: Speaking of special events, I remember coming to the tapping of the homebrew recipe competition last year. Is that happening again this year?
AC: Definitely. We started it in 2011 to celebrate session beers. I think we were slightly ahead of the curve since session beers are still at least a year from hitting the big time, but that was the goal. Last year we wanted a session IPA. It had to be less than 5.5% in ABV and have IPA flavor. Our winner was Tom Wallbank, and the guys from Tuxedo Park in Fountain Square took 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. This year, itis Rye that we're after. The beer has to be less than 6.5% ABV and contain at least 20% Rye malt, but it can be any style that you want. We are lucky to have an incredible judging panel every year.
HBG: How did you start with barrel aging?
AC: Our first barrel was an Evan Williams 1792 Bourbon barrel. But, with Republic National, we have been able to get access to a wider variety. We started three years ago with a Barrel Aged Brown ale that was released for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. We released another beer for the 2012 Derby, but the Ramageddon project really pushed it forward.
HBG: A common theme we have seen in these interviews is alternating room temperature with storage in the cooler. What have you learned about that?
AC: it is absolutely necessary. If you want all of the qualities that the barrel has to offer, you have to simulate the seasons. As soon as we fill the barrel from the crashed fermenter, we warm it immediately. We typically want at least one temperature change and then it all goes on taste from there.
HBG: Both Josh and Poff mentioned tasting every three to six months, but going based on taste. What are your thoughts.
AC: With our setup, we taste around the 4 month mark and adjust from there. I agree with those guys that you have to trust your instincts as well to determine how often you need to check the beer.
HBG: You mentioned earlier how you can never get all of the natural bugs out of the wood with a rinse. Do you guys have any plans to intentionally sour any beers?
AC: It would be interesting, but since everything is so compressed in our space here, it isn't smart to take the risk. As long as I am here, we won't do it. It is just too risky with possible cross-contamination in mind.
HBG: What other lessons learned can you share?
AC: One early lesson was to fill the barrel with uncarbonated beer. You tend to create a large amount of foam if you have carbonated beer hit the uneven surface of the wood. Also, with dry-hopping in the barrel, you need to use an air lock or release the pressure from the bunged barrel slowly. That was a hell of a mess.
PS Andrew, thanks for the hops, we'll have our recipe and demands over to you at some point in the future.