Justin Saffell and Matt Walters are two newcomers on the vanguard of an old, old tradition: foeder-brewed beer.
Foeders (pronounced ‘fooders’) have been used in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe for centuries, said Catherine Klene, managing editor at Sauce Magazine, but Saffell and Walters claim to be the first—and only—all-American foeder-makers. They run Foeder Crafters of America, located in O’Fallon, Mo., and construct their foeders by hand—just the two of them.
Sounds impressive. But what, you may be wondering, is a foeder for? And why have I never heard of it?
“I think it’s Dutch for ‘huge, huge barrel,’” Walters said—which is more or less helpful. But Klene offered a little more background on what ‘foeder’ means, and why they are used.
“They are large oak barrels that you use to age wine and beer, and they allow a slow addition of oxygen into the barrel over time; and that actually changes the profile and flavor of the beer,” she said. “They’ve been used in Belgium for hundreds of years for both wine and beer and now they’re growing in popularity here, in the craft beer community, for sour beers or other traditional Belgium-style beers.”
Sour beers are the “next big thing” in the beer world, Klene said, like IPAs were five or eight years ago. Sour beer is a traditionally Belgian brew, inoculated with yeast strains and aged in wine barrels or, of course, foeders.
“The result is a bright, almost slightly funky beer that can pack a really, really tart punch.”
Foeders are also used to age so-called ‘wild’ beers, Saffell and Walters said. In that case, the foeder is left open, so that regional yeast strains can join the traditional yeast to create an especially funky mix.
While not all sour beers are made in foeders, foeders are uniquely suited to age sour beers. Saffell and Walters make their foedres from American oak, plentiful in Missouri, and are huge—sizing all the way up to a 100-barrel behemoth that dwarfs its makers.
Strangely for the company’s focus on using prime Missouri wood, “most of our clients don’t want to have any oak profile at all” in their beer, Saffell said. “So what they want is more beer per square inch of surface area of oak.”
“You increase that volume so you reduce the amount of oak taste, if any,” Walters said. “And it allows the slow ingress of oxygen so you can actually age it longer without the beer oxidizing in a bigger vessel.” In other words, the size and material of the foeder ensures good fermentation for a sour, but very pure, taste.
There are small drawbacks to foeder-aging beer. Brewers can only make one beer per foeder, and sour beers require a rather longer fermentation than most—three months to a year, Saffell said. Add to that wait the fact that their foeders are handmade and these prices make sense: about $10,000 for a foeder, they said, and about $30 for a large-sized foeder-made beer.
That price might dissuade the beer drinkers who enthusiastically turned to IPAs back in the day. But as breweries ramp up their production of sour beers, Klene said, people may be more willing to give them a try.
Saffell and Walters seem also to believe that sour beers’ popularity is on the rise. While working at Heavy Riff Brewing, Saffell said, “I had been searching for brewing equipment and brewing vessels and thinking about the idea of getting a foeder—but I couldn’t find one.” Unusually for breweries, which are usually quite open and friendly, brewers with foeders were secretive about where they’d gotten them. But Saffell recognized that Walters, who was working on the bar in Heavy Riff, was a skilled craftsman—and that there was an open market in the U.S. for foeder crafting. “So, you know, one day I just asked Matt if we could build one.”
They could—after some trial and error. “Our first six that we built leaked,” Walters said. “It was the hardest, most difficult thing that I’d ever built—it was the most difficult thing that I’d ever built out of wood. Including violins.”
Breweries, for their part, seem to love brewing in foeders. “One of our clients from Yazoo, down in Tennessee, he said that foeders are like tattoos,” Walters said. “You start with one and then you get another one, you get another one, you get another one.”
Want to try foeder-brewed beer? Our guests recommend starting here:
Rosé du Blé, Side Project Brewing
“My favorite foeder beer is called the Rosé du Blé by Side Project,” Walters said. “It was made in one of our foeders, so that’s maybe the reason why it’s my favorite. But it’s also just unbelievably delicious.”
“The Rosé is one of my favorites as well, but you can go back to the classics like Rodenbach…all the Rodenbachs, like the Grand Cru,” Saffell said.
La Folie Sour Brown Ale, New Belgium Brewing
“Another good gateway one is La Folie from New Beligum, which is out of Colorado, and that’s pretty widely available,” Klene said.
Sound Bites is a monthly segment produced in partnership with Sauce Magazine.