Why are beers aged in wine barrels? And what's a "foeder"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What does it mean if a beer is aged in a “wine foeder”?

—Tammi, Jacksonville, Fla.

Dear Tammi,

In beermaking, a foeder (pronounced “food-er,” and derived from the Dutch word "voeder") is a large wooden vat. In winemaking it’s usually referred to by its French name, a “foudre.” It’s basically a very large barrel for aging alcoholic beverages. How large? A typical wine barrel, sometimes called a barrique, holds 225 liters; foudres range in size but usually start at 600 liters and go up to many thousands of liters in capacity. Foudres also vary in shape as compared with a typical wine barrel. They can be more cylindrical or egg-shaped, or they might be tall, upright or conical. Because of their size, they’re not meant to be moved around.

The size of a barrel determines the ratio of wood surface area to wine: The smaller the barrel, the more of the wine that is in direct contact with the wood. If a winemaker wants to minimize oak-influenced flavors, they might decide to use a larger barrel, or an older or “neutral” barrel.

Foudres have been popular in winemaking for centuries, but they’re having a big moment in beer right now as sours and lambic styles gain popularity—it turns out that brewers like those low ratios of wood to beer as well. So rather than find someone to make a foudre (or foeder) from scratch, which can cost thousands of dollars, some brewers have been finding old wine foudres and reconditioning them for use in beermaking.

—Dr. Vinny

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