Mashing in a 49-gallon barrel?

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Zwerg

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*Also posted this question in the wild/lambic subforum, but because the main part of the question is about mashing, I'm also posting here specifically to get answers about the mashing issue.

My friend and I (homebrewers with limited-to-moderate experience, mostly extract and stove-top partial mash) are interested in brewing a very large batch sour beer together with another friend of ours, who is a winemaker. My friend has access to plenty of 49 gallon barrels, and our thought is to brew a sour beer and age it for about a year in a wine barrel (hoping for plenty of brett and other bugs from the barrel to do their work on the beer during that time).

However, my winemaker friend doesn't have brewing experience, and I am trying to figure out how to handle the mash. Here is my current thinking:
  • Batch size: ~49 gallons (~100-120 lbs of malt, ~6-10 oz. hops? Detailed recipe to be worked out later)
  • Rent two 30- or 40-gallon stock pots, propane burners
  • Heat strike water in stock pots
  • Mash using a 49 gallon wine barrel as a mash tun
  • Sparge using same process, lauter (somehow, process tbd)
  • Boil the wort in the two stock pots
  • Rack into two barrels for fermentation
  • After fermentation, rack into one barrel for aging (one year? two years?)
Obviously this is a high-risk project given the volume and our relative lack of experience, but we want to give it a go anyway.

Question is, is the above plan feasible? My main concerns are:
  • Temperature control: My hope is that such a large volume mash will hold temperature well, and we could probably wrap the barrel with additional insulation. Any cause for concern here? Other possible thoughts include heating with an immersion coil/recirculation pumps/etc.
  • Improvising a false bottom/lautering: Is this going to be feasible? I think drilling an additional bung in the barrel for lautering is most likely not a problem, but haven't worked out the details here.
Sorry for the unorganized/half-baked thoughts, I'm still in the brainstorming stage but would like to benefit from the board's collective wisdom here. Thanks.
 

RPh_Guy

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wine barrel (hoping for plenty of brett and other bugs from the barrel to do their work on the beer during that time
You are adding a Brett culture, right? Barrels don't automatically come with the cultures you need.

Temperature control: My hope is that such a large volume mash will hold temperature well, and we could probably wrap the barrel with additional insulation. Any cause for concern here?
Temperature drop is generally not a problem. Nothing to worry about.

Improvising a false bottom/lautering: Is this going to be feasible? I think drilling an additional bung in the barrel for lautering is most likely not a problem, but haven't worked out the details here.
It's possible. I can envision a "bazooka" tube screen attached at a right angle to a stainless pipe that can be fed through the hole to the bottom of the barrel, which can then be used to siphon/lauter the wort. If the mash gets stuck you might be in trouble though, since stirring isn't really practical.

My advice (and what home brewers normally do to fill large barrels) is to just brew several batches. Supplement with malt extract if you want to brew fewer batches.
 
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Zwerg

Zwerg

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You are adding a Brett culture, right? Barrels don't automatically come with the cultures you need.


Temperature drop is generally not a problem. Nothing to worry about.


It's possible. I can envision a "bazooka" tube screen attached at a right angle to a stainless pipe that can be fed through the hole to the bottom of the barrel, which can then be used to siphon/lauter the wort. If the mash gets stuck you might be in trouble though, since stirring isn't really practical.

My advice (and what home brewers normally do to fill large barrels) is to just brew several batches. Supplement with malt extract if you want to brew fewer batches.
Thanks! Very helpful information.

Re: the barrel, I don't know yet - if you think we will need to pitch additional brett culture, I will look into that. Based on what my winemaker friend has said, there should be a lot of cultures living in a used wine barrel, but it would make sense to me to pitch additional brett. Thanks for flagging.
 

madscientist451

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You could get a custom made BIAB bags for the large stock pots or just use 10 standard size BIAB bags. That would be better than trying to mash the grain in a barrel.
I'm going :off: , but do you really want to risk several hundred dollars of grain, rental fees as well as your time on a questionable project? Professional, experienced brewers that have sour beer barrel programs have bad barrels of beer all the time and have to dump them out. Using an old wine barrel for a year may or may not provide a flavor profile you like. And what are you going to do with 50 gallons of sour beer anyway? You may be further ahead investing that money in a kegging setup or a chest freeze/temp controller ferment in. Then, start brewing some small batch sour beers and see what you like/don't like and go from there. If you're not already listening to the SOUR HOUR podcast, I recommend it as a great source of information/inspiration.
 

kmmuellr

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I'm w/ madscientist451.

Or get involved w/ a local homebrewers club that wants to do a barrel. My club has had two barrels over the years, and we typically have 11 people contribute a 6 gal batch to fill a 53gal bourbon barrel to age. Simple sized individual batches get added to the barrel, then its aged. The extra volume is for the angel's share. After whatever time period, each brewer gets 5 gal back. Alternatively is a solera barrel that another local club does. Brew the 6 gal recipe, when its fully fermented remove 5 gal and add your 5+ gallons to the barrel.

K
 
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Zwerg

Zwerg

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These are all good points, can't argue with that logic. Frankly, the project was mostly conceived by my other two friends (incl. the winemaker, who makes spontaneously-fermented natural wine and has a pretty good understanding of Brett and other microbes) and I joined later, so I haven't questioned the basic outlines of the idea. It certainly will be unfortunate if it doesn't come out well - but if it's good, hopefully we can continue to age them in bottle for many years (because you're right, it would take a long time to drink 50 gallons) and give them as gifts, etc.

Maybe I can talk them into a smaller barrel...
 
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