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Passion for Homebrewing

What Is a Foeder? And How to Even Say It

Photography courtesy of Foeder Crafters of America

A Dutch word, foeder (pronounced food-er) refers to a large vertical or horizontal oak barrel where wild, sour, or clean beer can be aged or fermented.

The French, who spell the word as foudre, have used them for centuries to age wine. But Belgian brewery Rodenbach began using foeders in the late 1800s to age sour ales like Rodenbach Classic, a Flanders red ale. And other European breweries, such as Brouwerij Boon, have long used foeders to produce lambic beers.

In America, New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, CO, launched its wood beer program nearly twenty-five years ago with La Folie, a Flanders-style sour brown ale that matures in foeders.

Since then, Firestone Walker Brewing in Paso Robles, CA, The Bruery in Placentia, CA, and numerous other American craft breweries use these vessels to create a wide range of sour, mixed-culture, and more recently clean beers.

Let’s take a look at foeders, how they differ from barrels, and how brewers use them to create distinctive American craft beer.

Why Use Foeders Instead Of Barrels?

Photography courtesy of Paul Mueller | Foeder Crafters of America

Barrel-aging has become a popular brewing technique in the present-day craft beer industry. And while some of the properties stay the same, old-school foeders have distinct advantages over barrels for both the beermaking process and the beer itself.

For practical purposes, a foeder stores more beer in a smaller footprint. A typical foeder spans at least three times larger than a wine or beer barrel, holding usually a minimum of five barrels (around 160 gallons). But foeders can be constructed to hold even higher volumes of beer.

So rather than racking, managing, and storing numerous barrels, a brewer can use a foeder to save space and time. Additionally, because foeders store a larger volume of beer there’s less likelihood of cross-contamination from yeast and bacteria, compared to barrels.

Photography courtesy of Green Bench Brewing Co.

When it comes to the beer itself, a foeder’s higher ratio of beer to wood allows the beer to more slowly mature and develop. Compared to a barrel, oxygen enters a foeder more slowly (called ingress), reducing the rate of oxidation. A plus when you consider that oxygen acts as beer’s kryptonite.

Most importantly, using a foeder infuses oakiness into the beer with less intensity and at a slower rate.

With standard barrel-aging, flavor tends to differ with each use as the barrel’s spirit or wine character and tannins leech out of the wood. On the other hand, foeders offer more flavor and aroma consistency for a large-volume batch of beer.

How Are Foeders Constructed?

Photography courtesy of City Barrel Brewing

Historically in Europe, a foudrier, or foeder maker, used French oak, cypress, and other woods to construct foeders. Conversely today, U.S. manufacturers often opt for American white oak that’s sometimes blended with French oak, depending on the client’s specifications.

Unlike a cooper, who builds barrels, the foudrier makes casks, barrels, and foeders using different techniques..

For example, foeders are constructed with a manway, or opening, that enables access to the tank’s interior for cleaning. If the brewer chooses to do so, a foeder can be cleaned more easily than a barrel.

However, that opening results in shorter staves, where the wood must be sawn rather than split, giving the foeder less structural integrity. A foudrier considers all these factors during construction, especially with large-scale foeders, because it impacts that oxygen ingress.

“Uncontrolled oxygen is an enemy of any beer,” says Tom Newcome, operations manager at Foeder Crafters of America. Based in St. Louis, MO, Foeder Crafters is the largest U.S. manufacturer of foeders. Each foeder takes about forty hours to build out of Missouri white oak.

Foeder Crafters addresses the structural integrity issue by producing finger-joined staves. When fully hydrated, the foeder’s finger joints make the barrel air-tight. “They lock together as a single piece of wood,” says Newcome. “Traditional foeders and barrels use butt-jointed staves, which are flat surfaces held together with pressure.”

Do Foeders Get Toasted And Charred Like Oak Barrels For Wine?

Photography courtesy of Paul Mueller | Foeder Crafters of America

Foeder Crafters uses oak air-dried for at least two years. The oak gets steamed after assembly to extract the tannins and begin hydrating the tank. “We also toast or char the interior of the foeders to our customers’ specifications,” says Newcome. “It is pretty rare that a brewery requests no toast. The spiciness/sharpness of raw oak isn’t usually something they’re going for.”

Why Are Some Foeders Built Horizontally Instead of Vertically?

Photography courtesy of Paul Mueller | Foeders Crafters of America

Foeders may be constructed horizontally or vertically, depending on the user’s preference and intent. “Horizontal foeders are typically used for lagers as there is a shorter distance for the yeast to fall out,” says Newcome. “Skinnier, longer foeders will have a higher wood surface-to-beer ratio so they might impart more oak. Our conical bottom foeders are great for cleaning out fruit or harvesting yeast. Overall though, most breweries choose the form factor based on the space they have for the foeder program.”