Journey into the Woodlands
SweetWater Brewing Company has always pushed an image of nonconformity. Its latest venture, The Woodlands, is no different. Over the last 20 years, SweetWater has focused on growing its brand, and as founder Freddy Bensch explains “We have capacity under control, and can give more time to projects we’ve always aspired to do.” Bensch continued, pointing out, “We’re always challenging ourselves to evolve and master our craft.” The Woodlands is the physical manifestation of the brewery’s vision to push its practice and, as Bensch finished, “…make some really phenomenal beers.” So it was in this spirit of innovation and mastery that the Woodlands was born.
The Woodlands facility is as majestic and inspiring as you might imagine. When you drive up to the building, the exterior immediately impresses. Brick and glass collaborate to create a modern and upscale ambiance. The large glass windows in the front immediately display the purpose of the building with six large foeders prominently displayed. You walk into the building with four American oak foeders sit to the left and two French oak foeders on the right, all six acting like gigantic gargoyles reminding visitors what they are walking into. Directly in front of you is a curved staircase inviting you to venture to the gorgeous bar upstairs and, behind it, racks of barrels all the way to the far depth of the building.
I warmed up my taste buds with Through the Brambles, a beer SweetWater is offering only in this building. It had a delicate blackberry fruit note and a great tart background. There were two different dry-hopped sour offerings and I naturally went to those next. Rainy Day Acid Trip featuring Amarillo hops was everything I wanted. Tropical fruit and resin dominate the aroma with a tartness that plays with the hop flavors amplifying up the fruit notes.
With beers in hand, it was time to begin the tour. Dudley Merrifield took us right into the thick of the Woodlands straight away. Like Frodo, I hopped onto Gandolf Merrifield’s horse drawn wagon and left the Shire for an adventure I’d never forget.
Directly underneath the upstairs bar are the barrel racks where many of the barrels will be stored. Merrifield explained that SweetWater plans to eventually fill the space with 900 different barrels. You can feel the excitement of this new and uncharted project, not only from Merrifield’s infectious enthusiasm, but from the immense room itself. The atmosphere felt wild, unpredictable and on the edge of something incredible.
Merrifield explained the value and experience that Troy Montrone, the manager of the Woodlands, brings to the program. Montrone has been with the brewery for a long time and is a trained chemist. Montrone’s expertise as a lab technician is evident in the organizational touches that are on display in the space. For example, each barrel that has bacteria or wild yeast in it has a tag on the front detailing what strains live in the barrel as well as the date the barrel was filled or last sampled and a variety of other coded entries.
The Woodlands, while newly revealed, has in fact been going on for a while already. The oldest barrels in the space are currently filled with SweetWater’s 18th Anniversary Ale. Barrels are labeled to identify what kind of fun and excitement are thriving within. The tour guests are warned from the beginning not to touch the barrels, especially the bungs, in order to protect the cultures flourishing inside. The wild yeasts and bacteria in these barrels are a product of nature and SweetWater is keen to remind you that they are simply managing the environment for them to run their course.
The next section of the Woodlands tour is in front of a towering wall of whiskey barrels. During this section of the tour, the tone shifts from what’s inhabiting many of the wine barrels to the barrels themselves. Merrifield was easily able to explain the differences and purposes for French Oak and American Oak barrels. He went further to explain how charring the inside of these barrels affects the flavors extracted after aging beer in them.
The last section of the tour is focused on the proverbial elephant in the room; the foeders, which are prominently displayed towards the front of the building. However, unlike many other brewery tours I have done, Merrifield let us peek behind the figurative curtain and revealed that the American Oak barrels are in fact jacketed to control temperature since the beers that will be aged in American oak will not be exposed to wild yeast or bacteria. Foeders, and regular barrels for that matter, are very susceptible to temperature and environment. Large swings in temperature cause the beer and the wood to interact more and increase the extraction of flavors and character from the wood. During hot Georgia summers, this could result in beers potentially becoming imbued with far too much oak character and the jacketed solution allows SweetWater to more tightly control the flavors they want imbued into the beer from the American oak foeder. Merrifield also gave a very visual explanation of how yeasts and bacteria can take up residence in the barrels themselves while also explaining a bit more about the imported French oak foeders across the room.
Lastly, Merrifield explained a bit more about SweetWater’s process from brewhouse to barrel to packaging. All of the sweet wort is brought over from SweetWater’s main brew house to the Woodlands in stainless steel totes. Next, the wort is fermented in the large foeders as a means to control the initial fermentation and have a common starting point before the fermented beers move on to individual smaller barrels. After the foeders work their magic the beer will be moved to individual barrels to age and develop unique characters based on each barrel.
With the tour complete, the group is ushered back upstairs to the bar to refill and enjoy more of the pleasures the Woodlands has to offer. I proceeded to round out my brewery tour by enjoying some bourbon barrel aged coffee stout. The sweet, roasted and boozy character played well together and accented the bourbon notes while managing to remain smooth and not at all harsh. I also made sure to enjoy a bit of SweetWater’s 20th Anniversary Ale, which I missed during their big birthday bash a few weeks ago.
All in all, the tour is easily among one of the best brewery tours I have ever enjoyed. I even skipped the chance to tour the main facility which is included in the price of the Woodlands tour. If you have never been to SweetWater, take them up on the offer and enjoy the tour of the rest of the brewery. The Woodlands felt organic, genuine and like the culture one would expect from a brewery that reminds us “don’t float the mainstream”.