Sour Beer Project | Honey Wine Barrel | American Oak

A little over a year ago myself and my buddy Nathan started a homebrew club in NE Mpls.  It's now referred to as the Nordeast Brewers Alliance.   We did a complete over haul of the organization and structure in 2012 and are extremely happy with the turn out at our Monthly meetings!   We routinely have around 15-20 people show up monthly.   Last year we'd be happy to have a handful.  But now we have a montly education topic, beer sampling (with critique and feedback), and special events, group projects, membership cards, and all kinds of fun stuff in the works.

One of the projects that I'm heading up is our Wine Barrel /  Sour beer project.    We are almost to the point of getting this barrel filled up, but before I get to the details of that, I thought I'd let you'all in on my research before I get to the juicy details.

Let's start first with trying to acquire a used Wine barrel in Minnesota.   Here is the thought process, considerations, and steps I took.


1. Contact local wineries - In Minnesota, the few wineries we have use their barrels basically until they can't hold water anymore and don't age all of their wine in barrels anyways.  This did not turn out anything and I called every single one in the state.   (You may have different results depending on the number of wineries in your region)

2. Talk to companies that sell them as rain barrels to hippies (like me).  Two places that I know of:
  • Barrel Depot in Shakopee:  This place seems to be run by some nice gals in Shakopee.  They were always very nice to me, informative, and willing to work with me on the type of barrel I wanted.   They had very resonable prices.  $100 - $150 / barrel depending on a few factors.   They also said that they could get 30 gallon barrels which I was seriously considering because at the time I started researching I was looking for myself, and to put in my basement.  
  • By the Barrel in Minneapolis:  This place seems to be run by some guys in North Minneapolis and I picture them living in a place like mine with a garage and yard full of huge 60 gallon wine barrels!   These guys are very helpful as well.  They aren't able to get smaller then 60 gallon barrels but they are very cool and willing to talk and give you advice.  I was going to by a barrel from them since they are so close to my house and eventually I may still but a few factors came into the decision to go with the barrel that I now currently have in my basement. 
 3. Contact a Local Brewery that makes barrel aged beers - I tried this with Surly but never got a response.  I didn't even think to try it with Town Hall because I didn't want a Whiskey Barrel.
     Those seem to be our local options.

    That barrel that you see in the picture above is the one that we are going to be using for the Nordeast Brewers Alliance Funky Barrel Sour beer experiment.  This barrel we acquired from someone who had acquired it from Town Hall brewery.   It is a barrel that originally was used for a Honey Wine by Minnestalgia.   Town Hall used it to age some Belgian Pale Ale called Thunderstruck even though it has a plate on the side that says it was used for Eye of the Storm.   Apparently that was it's original intent, but Town Hall ended up using French Oak for Eye of the Storm.   Now it's in my basement.  Mike Hoops from Town Hall was kind enough to call me back and give me all kinds of information about this particular barrel and he refered to it as "one of the pretty American Oak barrels".   It is a damn good lookin barrel!

    WHAT TO DO NOW THAT  I HAVE A BARREL-(how to prepare for long term aging of beer)
    This is where I leaned heavily on help from fellow sour beer fanatics who hang out on the burgundian babble belt homebrew forum.  Any question you have regarding sour beer should absolutely hit this forum if you want sage advice!   Check out the Babble Belt if you like Belgian Beers and want to get better at making them!

    Soo...after months, we got our hands onto this barrel!

    The general idea behind using wine barrels to age sour beer is that you don't want them to ever be empty.  Having an empty barrel allows Acetobactor to take hold of the barrel which is the same bacteria that helps make Vinegar. The best policy is to get a barrel that has been just recently emptied (within hours or even minutes).

    Since I had a barrel that had been sitting empty I did a bit of research to figure out my best steps to get this barrel ready for use.   Not only do I not want to waste my homebrew clubs time and money by making an undrinkable beer, but I also selfishly really want to make an amazing Sour beer because I fucking love drinking sour beer!

    Before HWB (Honey Wine Barrel) made it to my basement it had sat outside in the Summer full of water at a friend of a friends house.   Then it sat empty for a good 2-3 months in the late Fall and Winter.   One of the fears is that mold will take hold.  It doesn't appear to have!!!!     

    Here has been my process so far to take this barrel from possibly moldy and full of acetobactor to a habitable environment to make beautiful, artisinal, sour beer in the classic Flanders Style!

    1. Left it outside in the fridged winter for a few weeks prepping my basement for it and making space for it.
    2. Learning the dimensions so that I can make sure it will fit through all of my door ways.   American Oak barrels are typically 24" - 26" at their Widest point and French Oak are either 26.5" or 29".
    3. Building a Barrel Rack - 4x4's and casters
    4. Buying Sulfur sticks
    5. Borrowed a Power Washer
    6. Washing and Prepping it for beer.

    Here's a run down of what I did.   Me and Kevin brought it to my basement about two week ago.  We pulled the bung out and at first it smelled like cheeses....Ahh Ohh.   Then upon further sniffing it smelled of sweet honey wine!  It literally smelled like honey!    I constructed a simple barrel rack out of left over 4 x 4 treated fence post.  I placed it on the rack.  Then I filled the barrel up with 60 gallon of hot 130 degree water fully expecting it to gush out all over the basement floor.   Nope...it's a perfectly fine barrel that holds water still!   Yes!!!!  Then, I drained it with my March Pump, and power washed it with 140 degree water.   This was to try and get rid of any mold or crusty lees that may have been on the sides or bottom of the barrel.   The hot water should kill some of the nasties maybe as well but probably not.   I drained that and a little bit of crusty char did come out.   Rinsed it with cold water as you don't want to leave it steaming hot as the bacteria and critters like that environment.   I let it drain and dry out a bit and then I burned half a sulfur stick in it.  This sulfur should kill any unwanted bacteria and keep the acetobactor at bay!

    This is where we are at now!  It's sitting in my basement waiting for our crew to decide on a recipe!

    If you have any ideas on what we should fill up a Honey Wine Barrel with, or what you think would work well with this barrel let me know.  I'm thinking more of a Blonde Sour Beer even though my initial idea was to go straight Flanders Red!

     Also, if you have expertise in barrel aging, working with barrels, created sour beers in barrels, or any kind of barrel maintenance information pertaining to using them for beer.....I want to talk to you.   Please reach out to me as I need all the help I can get!


    1. That is a great post. I have been wanting to obtain a barrel for a project involving my local homebrew club. The issue we have encountered is finding space for it. Nevertheless, it sounds like a great project. I am looking forward to reading about the results the barrel provides.

      1. I had a tough time getting approval from the wife but now that it's down in our basement she thinks it looks cool. I was lucky to be able to make space right next to the drain in my basement!

        It's been quite the process so far. The best resource I've found for barrel advice and sour beer advice in general is the homebrew forum on www.babblebelt.com! Everyone is very knowledgeable, helpful, enthusiastic, and active!

        Good luck with your project if you can find a space for it. Hopefully my experiences will help you along the way!


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