When I received the barrel it came with simple instructions: “Fill the barrel with boiling water for three hours, drain, and fill with beer.” That was easier said than done. I added water and watched it drain out all over my garage floor.
I received the barrel 4 months before I was able to fill it. Plenty of time for the staves to dry out. That doesn’t include how long it was empty prior to the barrel being sold. So now I have a dry leaky barrel that can’t fill with beer.
So I decided to try to force the barrel to be filled. The hot water should swell the staves. I boiled water and continued to attempt to fill the barrel to the top. The leaking continually slowed but did not stop over the following 24 hours. I was topping off the barrel at least every 2-3 hours except overnight.
The other thing I was trying was tapping on problem staves with a mallet. This was another solution that the internets taught me. How well this worked is unknown. But it did help me feel better as I smacked the barrel that would not let me put beer in it. I was nervous about hitting it too hard so I’m not sure if I did any real good with the mallet.
So I’m 24 hours in to trying to fill the barrel and I can’t stop the leak. The internet has not been helpful and I’m reduced to putting random words together that are related to barrels to try to find something to help me stop the leak. Finally I came across an article from WineMaker magazine. It contained tips for new barrels and used barrels and at least gave me something new to try.
The new technique consisted of filling the barrel about 20% full with hot, steamy water, shaking the barrel to get the steam to penetrate the staves, and setting the barrel on its end to swell the head of the barrel. Repeat for the other barrel head. If that doesn’t work then soak the barrel.
I was already soaking the barrel with only limited success so it seemed foolish not to try it. Before I could do this I needed to empty the barrel. The leak was slowing at this point so the barrel still contained about 2 gallons of water. As I emptied the barrel my garage immediately smelled like bourbon. All of this soaking was stripping the barrel of some of its bourbon character.
Thankfully this new technique finally sealed the barrel. I tested it again by filling it with water. Finally I could drain the barrel and fill it with beer! I had the Russian imperial stout ready in a keg and used my Blichmann beer gun to fill the barrel gently. Being in the barrel would introduce enough oxygen. I wanted to add the beer gently so I did not make the oxygen impact more dramatic.
So if I had to do it over again I would do the following for barrel prep:
- Partial fill with hot, steamy water. Shake the barrel. Set on barrel head. Repeat for opposite head.
- Overnight soak with hot water if needed.
- For obvious gaps or large leaks in the staves try tapping the staves or bands with a rubber mallet.
Now the wait has begun. I lost some of my barrel character through long hot water soaks, but I’m confident that I will still end up with a delicious beer. If anything this may have made the barrel aging process less stressful. I was worried that with the small barrel size it could impart too quickly and become overbearing. After this ordeal I am going to relax and enjoy what the barrel brings.