It’s called the Woodlands Project. And it’s both a barrel-aging and sour beer program and a brand that’s poised to be a game-changer for Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Co.
Housed in a sleek new two-story brick building at the end of SweetWater’s packaging and bottle-conditioning hall, the 37,000-square-foot space is deliberately isolated to allow bugs like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus to go wild with wood and create new flavor profiles.
Mark Medlin, SweetWater’s brewmaster, and Troy Montrone, the Woodlands barrel-aging manager, are in charge of the project, which was envisioned by SweetWater founder and “Big Kahuna” Freddy Bensch after the aesthetics of California wine country.
“With 20 years now under our belts, we have capacity under control, and can give more time to projects we’ve always aspired to do, like working on higher-end, more time-consuming and complicated beers,” Bensch said.
“The Woodlands is a product of us wanting to go to a higher level of brewing, and gives us the tools and space we need to make some really phenomenal beers.”
Indeed, during a recent tour of the Woodlands with Medlin and Montrone, I was reminded of both the venerable sour beer breweries of Belgium and the small production wineries of Napa and Sonoma.
The showcase tableau at the front entrance of the Woodlands currently displays six tall oak foeders — commonly used for fermentation, inoculation and adding wood character to wine and Belgian-style beer. And there’s room for at least eight more.
Other areas house a growing collection of wine and bourbon barrels, and a few more exotic wood vessels, including some 500-liter Italian puncheons that formerly held Sangiovese.
In preparation for the project, which will also involve blending and additions of fruit and other flavorings, Medlin and Montrone have been barrel-aging a “golden base ale” for as long as two years now.
“We’re still in the process of figuring out how we’re going to use the space and getting all the tools in place,” Montrone said, “but the main focus right now is getting the foeders going and beers in the barrels so we can try things out.”
Perhaps as impressive to visitors, at the top of a curving staircase, the Woodlands boasts a spacious, mezzanine-like tasting room that doubles as a sophisticated event space, with options for small private tastings, seated dinners, and receptions for up to 400.
Everything from the Woodlands will be a limited release, available at the brewery, and bottled in very small batches. And the tasting room will feature other SweetWater limited edition beers, too.
The first Woodlands release, available on Jan. 6 to coincide with the first scheduled tours and tastings, is a blackberry Brett beer brewed with wheat called Through the Brambles.
It was aged in chardonnay and pinot noir barrels for 12-14 months, blended and bottle-conditioned with a house Brettanomyces strain, then corked and caged, and packaged in early September.
The bottle I sampled with Medlin and Montrone was tart, fruity and refreshing, with a hint of a salty, gose-like finish.
“I think it’s a pretty good first beer from the Woodlands Project,” Medlin said, as everyone sipped, and nodded in agreement.