Solera aging a Beer
By Evan Knezic
Why in the world would you want to use a technique on your beer that’s hundreds-of-years-old and traditionally for sherry? Maybe you’re feeling adventurous and want to make a multilayered complex funky stout or a sour beer; you’ll be amazed at what can be accomplished with a solera style aging process. Of course, this wouldn’t work for any style IPA like a juicy or hazy, you’d be crazy to do a solera. But sometimes crazy is crazy good!
The traditional solera process involves a minimum of 20 barrels and 20 years to make a traditional solera sherry. During the first year one barrel is filled with a new sherry. Over the course of the following years each year a new barrel of liquid is added, and a new batch of sherry is made. The barrels are usually in a row and a portion of one barrel is moved to next with each vintage. After 20 years the sherry in the final barrel is a blend of all the other barrels and has an average barrel age of 7 years.
I know you’re dreaming of where you’d be able to store even one 59-gallon barrel. If you’re half as obsessed and crazy as I am, you’ve probably already tried in your 700 sq ft apartment and your wife shut you down when you added the second barrel to the living room. I’m going to share my experience and encourage you to imitate, experiment, and enjoy your own solera journey. Back to beer and a more reasonable options for the average person.
Bourbon Barrel Solera Porter
My first solera story began in Wisconsin during a very cold winter. At the time Central Waters Brewing was making a variety of barrel aged stouts that we were all fans of. While drinking one of my stouts a friend looked at me and said, “Why don't you make a bourbon barrel aged version?”. Not being one to half do anything, I skipped the wood chips option and told him that to do it I’d need a bourbon barrel and need to make 55 gallons of beer to fill it. I was broke, and that didn’t seem like a reasonable option. Mind you, I’d only made 3 or 4 batches before this, but that’s a different story. My friend offered to “pay for everything, and we’ll split [the beer] it in half!” Two weeks later, the UPS driver was delivering a freshly dumped bourbon barrel from NY up the driveway, and I started brewing 5-gallon all-grain porter batches 12-15 hours a day to make enough beer to fill it. But the question remained, how long to age it? Would we have the patience to wait that long? And would the barrel be usable afterwards? Enter the solera style.
I’d like to mention here that you can use any size barrel and any amount of time between batches. Just remember that the smaller the barrel the faster the oak flavor will be absorbed.
Rather than using multiple barrels I decided on a single barrel solera system, wherein at set intervals, I racked 4.5 gallons of beer from the barrel and added a fresh 5 gallons of the same recipe. The angels share averaged ½ gallon every 60 days. This way we were able to enjoy some of the results as soon as 3 months after we started. I continued this process and at 2, 4, 6, and 9 months- removed 4.5 gallons and added 5 gallons. At 12 months I decided to bottle everything and started fresh with a new recipe.
We had a tasting of each of the different ages and compared notes. The results were fantastic! The 2 month was bourbon forward, while the 12-month had much less bourbon influence and more oak. Within our group of tasters, we were split down the middle when it came to preference, half preferred the 6-month and the other half the 9-month. Basically, the preference being on who found the bourbon or the oak more desirable. The 6-month vintage scored well in a competition in Milwaukee. I was super happy considering I was still very new in the brewing world.
With good sanitation you could continue this process indefinitely. You can slowly modify the flavor by tweaking the batches. A solera style single barrel is also an amazing way to do a funky or sour beer. You can use new oak or any host of other options as wine, bourbon, brandy, rum etc. The possibilities are almost endless. Pick a recipe, get a barrel, and take the journey.
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