A different kind of brewery is in the works for West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. When it opens in Charles Town in early 2017, Front Porch Brewing Company will be the first brewery in the state to feature beer fermented in oak barrels.
While Front Porch will use typical modern stainless steel fermentation tanks for much of its standard beer, it will not for its West Funkin’ Virginia (WFV) series. WFV beers will be fermented in used wine barrels, which have been neutralized so they do not impart strong barrel flavors to the beer during fermentation and subsequent aging.
Another twist: Instead of relying on traditional brewers yeast strains, WFV beers will be fermented with wild West Virginia yeasts and a strain of added brettanomyces. Brettanamyces, or brett, is actually a family of wild yeasts that have been used by brewers for many years to dry out and funk up beers. Wild yeasts thrive in the culture provided by oak barrel planks soaked with beer.
“I’m going to ferment a lot of stuff in the barrel,” says Front Porch brewer Mike Vance, who with his brother Josh are partners in the brewery. While aging beer in large wooden tanks (foeders) is beginning to catch on some these days, fermenting in a used wine barrel is pretty unusual in a modern craft brewery.
Getting funky in the Mountain State
Vance definitely plans to funk them up. He will get some freshly-dumped wine barrels from local wineries and use them to ferment and age West Funkin’ Virginia beers. Right next door in Loundon County, Virginia, are 42 wineries to source barrels from; and a bunch more in neighboring Clarke County, VA.
“We want to attract the people from Northern Virginia, D.C., and Baltimore area,” he says. “That’s going to be our main market.” He is even toying with ideas for a “Best Virginia” series that would focus on ingredients combining Virginia and West Virginia.
Where beers aged in fresh whiskey barrels are more commonly done to pick up the stronger whiskey and barrel flavors, Vance is seeking a different outcome for West Funkin’ Virginia. That’s why he uses neutral wine barrels.
He will take the base wort from the kettle and throw it in a barrel with a slurry of wild yeasts and let it ferment with various natural favorings (fruits, herbs, spices, vegetables) or leave it unflavored, then let it age for a period of months in the barrel. The brett and wild yeasts are slow acting and continue to work on the liquid beer and its components, developing complexity, adding acidity, and eating all the remaining sugars until the ale is very dry.
His style of wild barrel fermentation and aging is designed to impart a complex, yet subtle, series of flavors to the finished beer.
“These beers are meant for aging so they mellow and round out with age,” he explains.
Giving them the taste test
An eminent, five-member BrilliantStream tasting panel previewed four West Funkin’ Virginia test batches, plus one other of Mike’s barrel fermented/aged beers and gave them a strong thumbs up. They ranged from delicate to flavorful and were nicely balanced.
No harsh or objectionable off-flavors were present. They had low bitterness, light acidity, a kiss of oak, and an attractive fruitiness or herbiness that would pair well with food. Very well made, with lots going on. We think they will be a big hit.
The WFV beers tried by the tasting panel were typically aged for about eight months in the barrel. They did not taste at all stale or oxidized but still had a fresh character and nice effervescence.
Mike, who formerly worked at Morgantown Brewing Co., says he wants the WFV series to be approachable. He wants to let people know that not everything with brett and critters has to be a super puckering sour.
“It shouldn’t always be so serious,” he says about brewing funky beer. “We want to be known for fun flavors. Beers should be fun.”
What about IPA?
If your thing is the more traditionally popular craft beer styles, don’t worry, you’ll get your IPA.
“We’re definitely going to have an IPA,” says Vance. “It’s my wife’s favorite style, so I have to. We want to have hoppy beers, malty beers, and beers with complex flavors.”
Historical rehab too
Brother Josh, who works in the real estate industry, is in charge of rehabbing the historical structure that will house the brewery and restaurant. He bought the building and first completed renovating the upstairs apartments.
In August, rennovation began on the ground floor. The brewery will take over the rear portion of the first floor. Their kitchen and bar are on the right front side of the building. Additional seating and bathrooms are on the left side. An outdoor patio area sits behind the brewery section. It’s going to be a nice set up.
Look for Front Porch Brewing to add a welcomed new dimension to the state’s brewing community.
While the test batches we tasted were prototypes and will not necessarily be brewed commercially, here are some Production Notes on each. I think they all were primarily based on pilsner malt, except where noted.
West Funkin’ Virginia American Wild Ale: fermented in a wine barrel for 8 months with wild WV yeast and brettanomyces.
WFV Lavender Peach: base ale fermented in wine barrel for 8 months with wild WV yeast and brett with fresh lavender and peaches.
WFV Basil Mango: base ale fermented in wine barrel for 8 months with wild WV yeast with fresh basil and mango added.
WFV After Midnight: a dark saison recipe including some darker roasted malts in the grain bill; fermented in a second use bourbon barrel with saison yeast, wild WV yeast, and brett for 5 months.
Muscat Tonya: a blonde ale fermented with 100% brett in a wine barrel for 8 months with Muscat grapes added.
Brewery Facebook page link
Front Porch Brewing Company
129 W. Washington St., Charles Town, WV