From Grain to Glass with Barrel House Z Brewery

Barrel House Z (BHZ) is a small-batch craft brewery located in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The founder and California native, Russell Heissner, opened the brewery in 2015 with the idea of doing things a little differently than your typical brewhouse. Barrel House Z would become a unique brewery that grew in popularity thanks to their barrel-aged beers. If you can imagine it, they’ve tried it. Everything from bourbon barrel-aged stouts to session pilsners aged in tequila barrels. This type of aging and fermenting gives their brews a unique spin and unmatched flavor profile.

Barrel House Z produces an array of rotating east and west coast IPAs, flavored stouts, ales, fruited sours, wheat beers, and even craft seltzer. They’re probably one of the more diverse breweries in terms of styles in Massachusetts. You’re always going to get something new and experimental while relying on fan favorites.

I was lucky enough to spend a brew day with Russ and learn the ins and outs of his brewing process. As an avid homebrewer, this was a dream come true. I think I can speak for most homebrewers that learning about the commercial process first hand is on top of everyone’s wish list.

A Little Background

Barrel House Z sign

I’d assume most East Coast craft beer drinkers have heard of Harpoon Brewery in Boston, MA. Harpoon IPA was actually the beer that got me hooked on IPAs. Anyway, Russ was actually the founding head brewer of Harpoon back in 1986 when they first launched. Russ eventually moved on to other ventures in 1992, but he famously designed and brewed the early iterations of Harpoon ale in his apartment in Brighton, MA!

If you’re thinking this is the story of another homebrewer turned commercial beer producer, you’re actually wrong. Russ studied Fermentation Sciences at UC Davis in California, so he has a deep scientific background and fascination with the biology of beer making. Russ didn’t actually get back into brewing until several years later when Harpoon invited him back to the brewery to collaborate on the 23rd installment of their 100 Barrel Series, Rusty’s Red Rye Ale. The beer bug bit Russ yet again, and BHZ was born a few years after that.

The Creative Process

Russ’s passion has always led him to small-batch production brewing that is everchanging. Large scale commercial brewing of the same beers over and over again can be a monotonous task that feels like the same thing day in and day out. While Russ stresses that a brewery is about meeting customer demand and brewing what will ultimately sell, he still has the advantage of constantly brewing new beers.

BHZ’s planning process always starts looking six weeks in advance. The entire team meets regularly to discuss strategy and share customer feedback. When designing new beers, they explore what they’re looking to brew and work backward to build a supporting ingredient profile that will ultimately help them achieve what they’re trying to produce. This is where a strong background of ingredients and experience really comes into play. Understanding how grains, hops, and other additions have an effect on taste, aroma, color, and mouthfeel are all critically important considerations when designing a recipe from scratch.

The Brew Day

2 BBL gas-fired three-vessel fly sparge system.
From left to right: MLT, BK, HLT.

Barrel House Z operates on a relatively small 2 BBL (barrel) brewhouse. The coolest part is it’s basically homebrewing but on a much larger scale. The system is your basic gas-fired three-vessel fly sparge system with a mash lauter tun (MLT), boil kettle (BK), and hot liquor tank (HLT). What BHZ lacks in pure brewing capacity, they make up for in fermentation vessels. BHZ has three 4 BBL conicals for smaller batch or pilot releases and 20 BBL conicals for bigger production beers.

To keep up with demand, Russ turns his 2 BBL system over 14 times a week! To break it down, each week they fill two large tanks with 12 BBLs of wort, along with 4 BBLs of wort in their smaller conicals. A typical week consists of a production of 28 BBLs of beer. It’s a manual process without any form of automation other than Russ’s own control, but he’s got his process down to a tee. He does have plans to scale up to a much larger system in the future.

On this particular brew day, we brewed BHZ’s Dolphins on Parade, a citrusy New England style IPA brewed with 2-row, oats, and white wheat. BHZ has access to soft water so luckily they have an open canvas for building a mineral profile from scratch. Russ treats his NEIPAs with calcium chloride for a soft mouthfeel. He skips calcium sulfate additions altogether, which is in line with my personal preference.

Mashing in was exactly how you would imagine but at a much larger scale and with a much bigger mash paddle. We mashed at 150°F for one hour before sparging. The mash was also recirculated for the last 30 minutes before runoff. The whole process took about two hours before we were ready to boil.

Sparging in the mash tun
Sparging in the mash tun.

Once the sparge was complete the wort was boiled for one hour. This NEIPA featured no kettle hops. The wort was crystal clear as it was drained from the boil kettle, cooled, and aerated inline with pure oxygen on its way to the fermenter. This batch had a target fermentation temp of about 66°F and was fermented with SafAle US-05 yeast. Within 24-72 hours of active fermentation, the beer is dry-hopped with Cashmere and Barbe Rouge.

Overall, everything was really straightforward and fell in line with standard brewing best practices. As you scale up to larger systems, things get a little more complex. I will say though that one thing that surprised me above all was how quiet the brewing pumps were. Given their size, I can’t say they were much louder than my Riptide pump.

I did ask Russ if he ever homebrews at all these days and I loved his reply.Yes. Every day. Here.”

Boiling wort
Vigorously boiling wort!

Barrel Aging Beer

BHZ has a few different techniques when it comes to incorporating barrels into their brewing. They both ferment and age beer in barrels. Everything from red wine barrels to your common spirits. When I was visiting they were aging a Tiramisu stout aged in spiced rum barrels (I’m incredibly excited to try this one as I’m a big Tiramisu lover). In terms of barrel pairing, Russ said it’s all about trial and error and creating complementary flavor profiles. Tiramisu and dark rum obviously makes a tremendous amount of sense, but it’s not always that easy. He said a lot of Belgian styles pair well with red wine barrels, which I thought was really interesting. Of course, there have also been some failed experiments where things just don’t jive or quite pan out as expected.

What I find the most fascinating about the barrel-aging process is how beers will soak up residual alcohol from the barrels themselves. A stout could enter at around 8% and finish around 10% as it soaks up alcohol from the oak.

Our NEIPA was of course not aged in barrels!

Beer aging in wine barrel
Beer fermenting in a red wine barrel.

BHZ was initially built on the foundation of barrel aging beer but has since pivoted in their strategy as they’ve evolved. Barrel aging is both expensive, time-intensive, and increases turnaround time. To keep up with demand, and meet new business challenges (especially during a pandemic), they’ve reserved only very specific styles or limited releases for barrel aging.

Fermentation

Conical fermenters at Barrel House Z
20 BBL conical fermenters

Russ follows a standard fermentation schedule for almost all of his beers. His turnaround time is typically 21 days for most ales. The process is broken down between fermentation, dry hopping (if dry-hopped), and then cold conditioning before carbonating and packaging. Most homebrewers (myself included) are guilty of trying to speed up the process and turnaround time. I think this serves as an important reminder that good commercial breweries are not rushing their beers. This was also true for Dolphins on Parade—even super fresh hazy IPAs need ample time to condition to reach peak drinking form.

Conical fermenters - Barrel House Z
4 BBL conical fermenters for small batch release

At the time of my visit, BHZ was also fermenting a blackberry doughnut ale made with 84 pounds of blackberry puree. This was another beer I added to my please reserve for me, list! Russ talked a little bit about how they build complementary grain profiles to match the pastry flavors they’re looking to achieve. This beer was made with a grist inclusive of flaked oats and biscuit malt for a rich mouthfeel and bread-like characteristics. The blackberry puree of course adds the touch of sweetness you’d expect from biting into a fruity frosted doughnut. It makes total sense, but it’s still amazing how these things come together to make beer reminiscent of food, even if it’s our taste buds playing tricks on our brain.

Carbonation and Packaging

Bright tank and Barrel House Z
BHZ bright tanks

All finished beers will enter a bright tank for a few days to carbonate before being either kegged for the taproom or canned for distribution. The canning process at BHZ is certainly a small scale operation that requires hands-on care. Russ again is looking to invest in this system down the road to speed up production and increase quantity. This would likely go hand and hand with ramping up their brewhouse’s scale.

A lot of these aspects are decisions small-batch breweries need to make to open the doors. Russ ultimately gave himself room to easily scale operations by investing in the right equipment from the very start, while also allowing his brewery to grow with demand. It’s apparent that his focus was always on the ability to grow.

Barrel House Z back Annex

I had a blast brewing with Russ at BHZ. I’m hoping my next venture will be collaborating with them on a brew of my own for their taproom. If you’re visiting the South Shore in Massachusetts, I highly encourage you to check out BHZ for a beer (or two) and bar snacks. Their taproom is really cool and has an awesome atmosphere. Absolutely one of the cooler spots to grab a pour in the area. If you can’t make a visit, you can also grab cans locally in liquor stores throughout the greater Boston area! You can take a look at their to-go options online as well.

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