The man behind the firkin

Written by on June 25, 2015 in Beer - 1 Comment

gabeIf you are a fan of real ale — unfiltered and unpasteurised beer served directly from the cask it is conditioned in, without added CO2 — you have probably been to Barley’s Brewing Company in the Short North. They’re a long time home of ‘Firkin Friday’, a weekly cask conditioned ale tapping just in time for the Friday lunch crowd. And if you’re familiar with Barley’s, you probably also know all about their two iconic brewmasters, Scott Francis (1992 – 2010, now at Temperance Row Brewing) and, currently, Angelo Signorino. But do you know Gabe Sturgess, the man behind the firkin?

Gabe has served as Barley’s assistant brewmaster for going on five years, and he estimates that he has created more than 700 of these special real ales so far. In addition to the weekly Firkin Friday ale, Barley’s typically has one or two additional cask conditioned ales on their beer engines during the week. And before the breweries seperated a couple years back, Gabe also produced the real ales for the beer engines at Smokehouse Brewing.

The weekly process starts with Gabe evaluating the beer in Barley’s seven fermenters to see what he has to work with. All the cask conditioned ales start by drawing five gallons of one of their standard beers during the fermentation process, often their staple Centennial IPA or MacLenny’s Scottish Ale, but sometimes a stout, porter or pale ale. Once Gabe determines what is available in the fermenters, he considers seasonality, the other beers that will be offered on tap that week, and available additives — if Gabe is at the grocery and finds some delicious Georgia peaches that have just hit the shelves, it might be time to produce a peach-infused ale.

An important part of the process is understanding the current state of fermentation of the base beer — the beer’s gravity and carbonation level. From there, Gabe calculates the amount of additional sugar to add to the firkin along with whatever adjuncts have seen selected. This process is facilitated by Barley’s house yeast, they unsderstand inside out since they have been using it for almost two decades. Over the next 14 days, Gabe carefully follows the progression of the beer with daily sips and on Friday morning, the beer gets a final evaluation and the cask is tapped.

You might expect that it would be easy to get carried away when producing these cask conditioned ales, especially when you have done it hundreds of times. But his fundamental tenet is to “Respect the beer first and foremost.” It’s about producing something interesting, inviting, and drinkable each and every week. It is apparently working well, because the Friday firkin is usually gone that same night. The firkin may be something as simple as one of their standard beers simply cask conditioned to give it a very subtle difference, or it may be infused with fresh fruits, peppers, vanilla or coffee beans, a heavy dose of hop pellets or cones, or some Hibiscus flowers to impart a unique color.

Gabe’s favorite firkin was a cask conditioned rye IPA infused with Citra, Columbus, and Amarillo hops. His most unusual creation used gold flecks as an adjunct in an ale called ‘Greed’, part of Barley’s ‘Seven Deadly Pins’ series. Speaking of pins, the ‘firkin’ produced each week for Firkin Friday is technically a ‘pin’. A firkin is 10.8 gallons and a pin is 5.4 gallons. The more you know.

Keep an eye on Barley’s Facebook page to see what is in store the Firkin Friday each week or just drop in for a real ale. Cheers!

About the Author

Bill Babbitt is a retired engineer, beer lover, and freelance writer for Beer Advocate Magazine.

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