Whether it’s beverage recipes, mystery ingredients, or production tweaks, much has been made about trade secrets over the centuries. No one wants to divulge anything that might tip the competition to the differentiating subtleties that get their drink drunk.
Attempting to ask end users about their use of barrel alternatives for this article was no different: Lips were fully clenched; calls were not returned.
No one in the industry seems willing to say what they’re doing—unless it’s fermenting and/or aging beverages in traditional barrels or using some cool, cutting-edge concrete amphorae. There’s a romanticism associated with those traditional vessel choices. “We sell romance,” one winemaker acknowledged to Spirited.
Heather Burton, marketing director for Barrel Builders in St. Helena, Calif., confirms there’s a “romanticized notion that all that goes into a bottle of wine is crushed grapes that were aged for years in a French oak barrel.
“But in reality,” she continues, “there’s a vast array of different ingredients and processes that go into that bottle.”
Despite the contention that consumers are most interested in drinking a beverage—wine, beer, spirit, cider—that tastes good and is well made, regardless of what steps it took to achieve that result, producers are doing little to dispel the prevailing image. One expert recounted a visit to a winemaking operation that routinely uses various alternative containers only to observe that the property tour is arranged such that visitors only see barrels.
Commercial beverage makers are indeed using everything from oak powder to full staves in stainless vessels, confirmed the winemaker, but no one wants to discuss it: “In general, people aren’t willing to talk about tricks,” he says.
Therein lies the trouble. Until these different products and techniques are accepted within the beverage world as viable and effective mainstream production alternatives, they will continue to be regarded as clever sleight-of-hand gimmickry rather than as legitimate tools designed to help beverage makers shape and sculpt flavor.