Last year, when Jack’s Abby Brewing of Framingham, Mass. had a few unused aging barrels, owners and brothers Jack, Sam, and Eric Hendler decided to experiment.
“We had a few empty barrels, too few to do a big batch with, so we decided that it might be fun to do something small,” said Eric Hendler. Competitors were given a barrel, beer, and money to buy ingredients to add to the barrel in hopes of creating the best one-off brew.
Now in its second year, four teams of Jack’s Abby employees are competing for “Battle of the Barrels” glory.
The teams consist of employees from all departments, and each is headed by a brewer and a member of the Hendler family: Eric, Sam, Jack, or Jack’s wife, Abby. The teams were given two empty bourbon barrels, $100 for ingredients, and the choice of any beer in production to steep the ingredients in for a little over a month.
“$100 gives plenty of flexibility to go crazy with ingredients, but isn’t too much in case the beer ends up being bad and has to be dumped,” explained Eric Hendler. “Last year we had one or two that were not as good as the others, but they were still sellable.”
Last year’s winning battle of the barrels brew was Numb Swagger, which was made by infusing Jack’s Abby’s Smoke and Dagger with Szechuan peppers.
This year’s winning beer will go into regular rotation and be on tap at the brewery, with the possibility of distribution. The three losing brews will be available at the taproom until they run out. Any beers deemed not drinkable will go down the drain.
Members on Abby Hendler’s team wanted to create a caramel sea salt flavored beer.
“We used the Smoked Marzen as the base, to get a smoked caramel salty flavor,” said Collin Dunbar, brewery taproom bartender and Abby’s team member. The team used Fleur De Sel sea salt, caramel extract, and fenugreek seed – a spice often used in Indian cooking.
“The fenugreek has a smoky, sweet flavor, but it overpowered the other flavors,” said Dunbar.
The beer doesn’t have a name yet. According to Dunbar, its name is dependent on whether the team will build off of the fenugreek seed flavor, or try to draw out more of the caramel and sea salt flavors.
Jack Hendler’s team opted to use the Sunny Ridge Pilsener as its base and infused it with green tea, lemon grass, goose berries, and pureed cucumbers. The team rinsed out their barrels before adding the Pilsener in an effort to minimize the bourbon flavor.
“We were going for a softer, more delicate flavor profile,” said Jack’s team member and brewer Tim Wilson. “And apparently the cucumber flavor is all the rage with beer geeks.”
“Sunny Ridge and Tonic” is the working name for the beer Sam Hendler’s team is creating, which is made from ingredients found in gin.
“I did research about what goes into gin, and there were a lot of different ingredients to draw from,” said Herb Lindtveit, Sam’s team member and brewer. “We didn’t want to use things that were either hot and spicy or sweet and chocolatey. We wanted to avoid things that have already been done.”
Along with juniper, lemon grass, elder flower, hibiscus, and orange peel, Lindtveit said the team plans to add quinine, a bittering agent that’s derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. This ingredient will be added last and “to taste.”
Jabby Brau was the beer of choice for Eric Hendler’s team. The bourbon barrels were rinsed out to create a clean slate for tequila, galangal root, agave nectar, Thai chili peppers, lemon grass, and oak spirals. “Thai Brau” is the working name for the brew.
“We’re going for a sweet and spicy Thai flavor. We thought it would go well with the tequila and light Jabby Brau flavor,” said Eric Hendler.
“We were nervous when we started, because we rinsed out the barrels and just added tequila,” Eric added. “But I’m fairly confident that we’ll win.”
While the teams were secretive about their recipes, word-of-mouth travels quickly around a brewery with twenty employees.
“I’m not sure exactly what everyone else is doing, but what I’ve found is that nobody is doing run-of-the-mill stuff,” said Lindtveit. “There’s not a cocoa nib in sight.”
On April 2 at 6 p.m., the beers will be evaluated by a panel of guest judges at the brewery, and a winner will be chosen. The judging is open to the public, and a food truck will be on-site.
All battle of the barrels beers (assuming none are drain pours) will be available while supplies last at the taproom starting that Wednesday.