It’s customary to spot barrels at breweries, but this one’s different. Standing about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide, the tall wooden vessel figures prominently behind the glass at Wooden Robot Brewery in Charlotte.
Oak staves bound by metal rings. It’s easy to see why some might simply see an oversized barrel. Others will know this as a foeder (pronounced FOOD-er), often used in the production of sour beers.
“When we got our first one in, we placed it right in front of the glass so when you come in the door it’s one of the first things you see,” said Dan Wade, head brewer and co-owner at Wooden Robot. “It’s no accident. We love sour beers. It’s something that we’re really passionate about.”
As tart, sour and wild styles of beer gain in popularity, foeders are becoming a more common sight at breweries around the country and across the state. Rather than aging their beers in an array of different barrels, brewers can often produce a more consistent beer and save time and energy by using these much larger vessels.
The foeders themselves don’t impart the sour or funky flavors. Those usually come courtesy some combination of the following: Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that yields barnyard notes; and Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, two different types of bacteria that both produce lactic acid. How brewers use these ingredients varies, but these are the “bugs” often – but not always – found inside foeders.
Wooden Robot uses a little Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces, as well as strains they have isolated from local fruits or dregs from other sour beers.
Wooden Robot and many others across the state are purchasing their foeders from Foeder Crafters of America, a relatively young company out of Saint Louis producing “all American foeders” in a variety of sizes and applications. Such foeders were tough to come by when Raleigh’s Big Boss Brewing Co. started brewing sour beers about six years ago.
“They were not very available,” said Brad Wynn, brewmaster and co-owner at Big Boss. “They weren’t being made in the numbers they are now. There’s been a renaissance in the production of them.”
So when Wynn had an opportunity to purchase two foeders from Rodney Strong, a California vineyard and winery, he jumped at the chance. The pair still stands tall in the brewery’s warehouse, often filled with its Saints and Sinners, a sour beer done in the style of a Flanders red ale.
While few breweries have foeders with such history, many are opening their doors with sour or wood-aged beers as their primary focus. Durham’s Durty Bull Brewing Co. started selling its own beer in August, but they’ve already put their two 30-barrel foeders to good use.
“Wood-aged beer was one of our focuses, so we definitely wanted to start right off the bat with two foeders,” said brewery manager Matt Pennisi. “If we add more vessels, it’ll be foeders.”
Earlier this month, the brewery released bottles of its Blonde Sour, one of a handful of beers the brewery plans to brew repeatedly. This and other sours spend weeks in one of the foeders, however the other one will be used for non-sour styles, like the brewery’s Baltic Porter.
Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw was among the first in the state to use them when they opened in 2014. Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing has made a name for itself as one of the country’s preeminent brewers of sour beer, many of which come from their foeders, and their neighbors at Burial Beer Co. also use the wooden vessels.
Though not as well known for their sour beers, Aviator Brewing Co. in Fuquay-Varina purchased two 30-barrel foeders last spring. Currently those foeders hold Yucatan Cucumber Lime Saison and Nosek Sour Cherry Brown Ale, both of which the brewery soon plans to can.
Given their rise in popularity, don’t be surprised if you find your local brewery messing around with one of these gigantic barrels in the future.
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.