Like most breweries, when Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, New York, ordered two 30-barrel oak foeders, the plan was to use them for mixed-fermentation ales. “We decided to put a Pilsner through it first, just to see what would happen,” says Brewer Matt Levy. “We’re fans of old German styles, and it just made sense to try this wood.” The result is a foeder-aged 5.2 percent ABV Pilsner now called Vliet that has become one of the brewery’s most sought-after beers and something of a cult favorite around New York City.
Then and Now
Foeders, the large oak aging vessels, have been commonplace in breweries around the world for generations. Largely found throughout Europe, they were once commonplace in the United States as well. In fact, at Schell’s Beer in New Ulm, Minnesota, the brewery dug massive vessels from a long-forgotten cellar and rehabbed the tanks to create its Starkeller line of mixed-fermentation beers. Originally however, the foeders were used for lagers, as was the case from Pilsen in the Czech Republic to breweries throughout the United Kingdom.
So, as craft brewers continue to carve out their niches in the market and offer new beers, the same is true for equipment manufacturers, and now breweries of all sizes can have foeders, adding charred wood and oak complexity to recipes. And while it’s true that the majority of the brewers are using the vessels for wild or mixed-fermentation beers, there are others that, like Threes Brewing, are putting the wood to use for their clean programs.
After making the Pilsner for the first time, Levy says, “It just opened our eyes. There was this wonderful subtlety that the beer took on after fermenting in the vessel. We get this toasted-marshmallow note out of it, and it just rounds out the edges of the Pilsner. It’s a fun tweak on a simple thing.”
There are challenges to making the beer, of course. The brewery has a 15-barrel brewhouse, so it needs to do Pilsner batches back to back to fill a foeder. That means ensuring that the first round of beer is treated properly while the second is being prepped and produced. Making sure there is consistency is tricky for the small brewery, but Levy says that over the past few years of making this beer, they’ve learned how to best care for it.
“We have to fill the foeder over 2 days, and it’s a fun, but fraught, process. Still it’s been working out really well, and we’re rolling with it.”
They’ve also had help from Foeder Crafters of America, the company that made the foeders. There’s a cooling coil at the bottom of the foeder, and they installed a secondary cooling plate at the top to ensure even temperature distribution during fermentation. After 2 weeks of primary fermentation, they crash the beer as best they can—and as best the foeder can handle—for 6 weeks and then transfer it to stainless-steel bright tanks before packaging.
“As we’re emptying the foeder, we’re cleaning and refilling it,” Levy says.” For scheduling, it’s tricky. With stainless, you can leave things a little longer, but with this method, we don’t want to let Brettanomyces or any bacteria in, so we need to move fast. We’ve been fortunate so far.”
The second 30-barrel foeder that Threes purchased, by the way, is happily filled with a mixed-fermentation ale as originally intended.
First Clean, Then Wild
On the other side of the Hudson River, in New Jersey, Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands recently opened up a new production facility on its property with the intention of letting its original brewery go wild and spontaneous and let bugs play in the beer.
The brewery purchased a 30-barrel foeder, also from Foeder Crafters, with a heavy char on the inside. Before they let it go wild, they put it in the new facility and filled it with an IPA recipe based largely on a traditional post-Prohibition IPA, specifically the one produced by Ballantine.
Brewery owner Augie Carton spent time researching the tasting notes from the time and trying to work out a recipe that would be as true to the era as possible. (For more about the challenges of re-creating the historical Ballantine IPA recipe, see “Ballantine IPA Returns, Perfected by Homebrewing,” on beerandbrewing.com.) He used Bullion hops oils that extracted the kind of fruity flavor he was looking for. He calls it basically “a cream ale with a simple grain bill, fermented with Chico yeast.” But the wood character of the foeder brought out a bit of smoky depth and wood tannins that kicked up the hops flavor and added a layer of complexity to the beer. It was released as a limited offering earlier this year before the foeder was moved into the wild space and put to work for its intended beer purpose.
But Carton says that he plans to order another foeder and to work out a schedule for re-creating this beer—which, over time, will morph into an American barleywine—without losing the char character that can weaken with each turn of the foeder.
“It’ll be something like ‘darken the char on the foeder, brew into it and brew a similar beer into stainless; in 3 months blend the two, and then brew into the oak again and just hold it longer so we can nail the same profile each time. Then we retire the foeder into the [wild brewery] and buy another foeder.’ ”
As Carton mentions above, the wood will change over time and with each turn, so the brewers using this method need to continuously taste and adapt time-wise to make sure that the flavors stay consistent.
Based on the popularity of these beers, it’s a good bet that more breweries that purchase foeders will turn out at least one clean beer before going wild with it. Or, there will continue to be more experimentation in wood with traditional styles. At Threes Brewing, Levy says that recently the brewery made two new lagers from the foeder: a festbier and a smoked helles. The wood, he says, really adds fun flavor dimensions to the final product.
“When the wood is strong, you’re going to get a lot of vanilla and tannic notes from the wood. But when you’re fermenting cold and doing quick turns, you get that toasted marshmallow, and it was perfect in the helles.”