While Belching Beaver Brewery is largely known for everyday styles and its fan-favorite Peanut Butter Milk Stout, the North County business sports an extensive barrel-aging program. Headed by barrel master and R&D brewer Peter Perrecone, that niche component is in a state of growth after installation of a coolship at its original production facility in Vista.
A wide, open-top vessel, the coolship’s purpose is two-fold. As its name suggests, the metal container holds hot wort (unfermented beer) transferred to it from Belching Beaver’s 15-barrel brewhouse while it cools (an overnight process). Its open-air nature also allows wild yeast and bacteria present in the atmosphere to get at the wort. Those organisms are what ferment and lend exotic, unique flavor to the resultant “wild” beers as they age away in oak barrels.
“I plan to use it to make méthode traditionelle beers, which is as close as you can get to making lambic and gueuze in America,” says Perrecone. “Each beer from our coolship will have its own unique branding, and we will use the beer description to specify where the parts of the blend came from, be it our coolship, oak foeders or oak barrels.”
“This is what I’ve been working toward my whole sour-brewing career,” says Perrecone, who was the inaugural brewer for originally all-wild Vista operation Toolbox Brewing before departing the business in 2015. “I see this project as adding another layer to the Belching Beaver cake. This is fun and exciting and not something that a lot of breweries are currently doing in Southern California.”
As it stands, of the 150-plus operating brewhouses throughout San Diego County, the only other operation equipped with a coolship is El Cajon’s Burning Beard Brewing, which began utilizing that vessel just over a year ago. There are many reasons for the scarcity of this piece of equipment. Producing spontaneously fermented beer requires militant quarantine procedures where clean beer, and the apparatuses used to produce it, must be kept completely separate from those infested with bacteria and bugs (which could irreparably infect them). This requires separate rooms, equipment and even clothing, which equates to added expense. Plus, these beers take years to produce with no firm time tables or guarantees that they will turn out as desired. Separate packaging mechanisms are required, as well, and such beers—due to labor and the aforementioned expenses—have significantly higher price tags, making them a tougher sell to consumers.
It also makes for a tough sell to business decision makers, but not in Perrecone’s case. “Getting our CEO Tom Vogel and brewmaster Troy Smith onboard was easy. We never shy away from investing in the quality of our beer,” says Perrecone. Even with support from above, the sour beer specialist acknowledges the slowdown in nationwide sales of barrel-aged specialty offerings. “We produce just enough to hit our markets, but not overload them with these beers. We’re focusing on méthode traditionelle and spontaneously fermented beers to take our program to the next level. We’ve found barrel-aged beers of all styles are still in high demand. At the end of the day, I believe this was a good decision.”
Belching Beaver’s coolship was officially “christened” on December 26 with a “nice, long brew day.” Perrecone and assistant brewer Keith Porter made a traditional turbid mash that required three hours of boiling before transferring the wort to the coolship, where it cooled without incident and was transferred to barrels to ferment. The hope is that the beer will be ready to share with the public by 2021, but there is no way to know, and Perrecone, whose plan is to produce one-, two- and three-year blends in the classic gueuze tradition, says he won’t rush the beers that grace his coolship.