“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.”
Dry River Brewing in Los Angeles, California, is cutting its own course through the beer landscape. Not settling for a shiny new brewhouse and a lineup of core beer, cofounder and brewer Naga Reshi is pursuing the more esoteric world of wood aged mixed fermentations, and he’s finding a thirsty audience for his dissident beer. Now Reshi has a new tool for exploring the funky frontier: fermentation vessels inspired by divinity and crafted in American oak.
While there’s a one-barrel pilot brewhouse at Dry River, nearly all of the wort production happens at close-by neighbors Indie Brewing and Boomtown Brewery. Batches get transferred into a steel and plastic “tote” and either loaded into Reshi’s pickup truck or carried down to the end of the block on a forklift.
But there are no stainless steel cylindroconical fermenters waiting to be filled; all the fermentation at Dry River happens in wood. The house culture—a mix of brewer’s yeast strains and some more wild specimens that Reshi calls his zoo—works in the brewery’s collection of used wine barrels and puncheons. Recently, Reshi added some new pens to his zoo’s accommodations: two 20-barrel oaken tuns. The foeders expand Dry River’s fermentation capacity and streamline production while freeing up resources for more of the experimentation that’s at the heart of Dry River’s ethos.
Borrowed, or more accurately salvaged, from the wine industry, foeders are nothing more than big barrels where fermented beverages develop the deliciousness sought by the craftsmen. Their larger scale—from about four times larger to over a hundred times larger than the average wine barrel’s volume—means a winemaker can process a larger amount of wine in a smaller area with more consistency than with individual barrels. The smaller surface-to-volume ratio of a foeder compared to a barrel also means the liquid within oxidizes slower than in a barrel. This more gentle maturation of large volumes of brew in a single vessel made foeders attractive to some of craft beer’s sour beer pioneers such as New Belgium Brewing. French wineries replace foeders regularly once the oak is depleted of the flavorful compounds that winemakers seek, and the winemaker’s deitus is the brewer’s boon. Used foeders became popular with brewers, but as more sour beer producers added foeders to their arsenal, the market for secondhand wood became increasingly competitive.
Friends, business partners and beer lovers Justin Saffell and Matt Walter saw the trouble brewers went through to source foeders, and they also saw an opportunity. Walters, a skilled finish carpenter and violin builder loved working with native Missouri white oak, and the pair imagined using the dense wood for some American-made foeders to satisfy the growing market. They launched Foeder Crafters of America, and Walters worked on the designs and processes for actually building water-tight oak vats during the years-long process of drying and seasoning the white oak stock that he’d use in the first American foeders.
“If you have two years to plan something you tend to do a decent job,” Walters says of the first foeder he built for Side Project Brewing near St. Louis. His designs hew close to the traditional French- and Belgian-built foeders, but Walters says he’s Americanized them in a couple of ways. Besides the use of the American white oak, finger joints on the staves allow them to lock together “like legos,” meaning less structural steel is needed in the bands that encircle the foeders. It’s exacting work that’s done with computer-controlled and laser-guided tools, but putting it all together is still the job of a couple of guys with mallets.
Dry River Brewing’s Reshi, an accomplished woodworker in his own right, knows quality craftsmanship when see sees it, and he’d long wanted to add foeders to the brewery’s climate controlled barrel cellar. Anticipating an increased demand for beer after the brewery opened a tasting room, Reshi contracted Foeder Crafters months in advance for a pair of 20-barrel egg-shaped foeders. Reshi, a compact and wiry man with steel gray eyes and a quick smile, has brewed in a half dozen countries and is no stranger to working with foeders. At a brewery he built in Brazil he aged beer in large foeders previously used for Cachaça—Brazil’s rum-like spirit made from fermented cane juice.
The two brews that fill the Dry River foeders, a saison and a higher-gravity golden imperial saison, serve as foundational elements in Dry River’s blended beers. These foeders are not set on end like most, but horizontally rest on a custom stillage. Nearly seven feet tall and five feet deep, they hold 500 gallons of beer each. There are a couple of ports for filling, draining, and sampling and a manway set into the face. The egg shape, Reshi says, was a big selling point.
“The egg was designed by God,” he proclaims, “it’s a pretty perfect shape!” With no corners, he explains, the active yeast flows naturally, internal currents form and fermentation proceeds rapidly. The geometry is better for the yeast he says, and his zoo seems happy inside the egg. He’s also found that his cultures are producing more attenuated beers: “We went from about 2°P to under 1°P,” he says, “drier beers are what I’m looking for.”
Reshi is already planning to order more foeders and hopes to get a larger 40-barrel tank.
Foeder Crafters offers a line of sizes and configurations, from the smallest 7-barrel foeder that’s just three feet in diameter to the gargantuan 250-barrel that towers some fourteen feet high. The construction process begins many months before anything is assembled as Walter selects all the individual white oak logs that are dried in his 10,000-square-foot wood shed. Once fully seasoned and ready for processing, the lumber is milled into boards that are each inspected, and even tasted, before becoming staves.
“It’s a pretty intimate process,” Walter says. “We get the boards right up to our faces.” He says about one out of every thirty boards tastes bad. The reject boards—dubbed “squirrel poop” by Walter’s crew of six employees—are not discarded but used to build bracing and stillages.
A computer controlled “wood knife” mills each selected board into staves with a specific radius on each side, and finger joints are cut into the ends. The tolerances are extremely tight, in some cases down to twenty thousandths of an inch, to ensure the foeder will hold water. Once assembled, the inside of each foeder gets charred to the customer’s specifications ranging from a light toasting to a deep “alligator char,” then the foeders are steamed to order.
A light steaming conditions the wood, while more time spent under steam pressure will pull out more of the flavor compounds in the wood. A long steam results in a more neutral character and prevents the wood character from overpowering the first batches that fill the foeder. Walter’s sensory work continues at this stage. When there’s a foeder under steam in shop, Water says “it smells like sugar cookies baking.”
Each morning he walks the floor and tastes the liquid—basically a wood tea—that collects around the drain ports of the steaming foeders. “A lot of decisions we make are totally hedonic,” he says.
“It’s a whole lot more intimate than any other woodworking I’ve done.” Once the condensed steam tastes right and matches Walter’s mental picture, the unit is done and crated for shipping. It takes around 4 weeks to build a 30-barrel foeder—the best selling size.
Shipped across country, it was no small task to get the foeders into the Dry River barrel room; they were too large by a mere half inch to fit though the brewery door and required some quick deconstruction of the door frame.
Once set up, Reshi rehydrated the empty eggs with steam and filled them with hot water to check for leaks. For the first filling with beer, Reshi brewed a 15-barrel batch of 17.5°P imperial saison at Boomtown Brewery about 2 miles away and trucked the wort to Dry River in batches. After the first transfer, Reshi pitched a mixed-culture yeast similar to Dupont’s signature strain with Brett C added for increased attenuation. Once primary fermentation completes, Reshi can rack off 5 or 10 barrels of beer from the foeders into his blending tank then top off each foeder solera style. Other brews are blended with the foeder fermentations, then the beer can be packaged and bottle conditioned, or re-inoculated with Dry River’s aggressive pediococcus culture and racked into wine barrels for acidification.
In the three years since building the first unit for Side Project, Foeder Crafters has shipped around 400 more American-made white oak foeders all over the world. While they’ve sold foeders to a few wineries, Walters is more interested giving brewers better access to foeders.
“We prefer to work with brewers,” he says. “They’re so nice. We get bottles from customers all the time.” Some of his favorites recently, the brews that rise to the level that he calls “onion beer”—with layer after layer of flavor, are from Casa Agria Specialty Ales near L.A., Trillium’s potent sour beers, the mango sour brew from Arclight Brewing in Michigan, and of course anything from his friend Cory King at Side Project. Walter’s voice fills with pride as he runs through his list of favorites, “We really feel like we are a small part of the process and a part of each brewery.”