This Chicago homebrewer proves you can barrel-age at home
Ricky Cervantes is proof that homebrewers can make exceptional barrel-aged beers.
He’s also proof of what can happen with a lot of hard work, experimentation and a little bit of luck. Just last year, Cervantes and a couple partners started Foreign Exchange Brewing Company, which currently is contract brewing with hopes of opening a craft brewery and taproom in Aurora, Illinois,
But that’s another story – and we’d be getting ahead of ourselves if that’s where we started.
Before Foreign Exchange, Cervantes first was a homebrewer.
“I dabbled in homebrewing back in 2009, 2010, but it was right around 2016 when I kind of really started taking it a little more seriously,” he said.
Cervantes was not at all your conventional homebrewer, though. Unlike many, he began exploring how to barrel-age beer from the beginning.
“Very early on, I had a passion for barrel-aging and nearly every beer that I was doing at home was a barrel-aged beer, which is very uncharacteristic for homebrewers,” Ricky said. “Most of them kind of dabble in different styles. I dove right into barrel-aging imperial stouts, barleywines, wild ales, saisons, all that fun stuff.”
Barrel-aging as a homebrewer
Starting out with barrel-aged brews wasn’t easy at first for Cervantes. He had a couple of batches that went bad because he admittedly wasn’t sure of what he was doing. It took a lot of experimentation because information on how to barrel-age for homebrewers wasn’t readily available.
“With regard to homebrewing and barrel-aging, there isn’t a lot of information out there on the internet,” Cervantes said. “So I kind of had to learn the hard way.”
But he did eventually learn his way around a barrel.
“I quickly learned how to work with barrels, how to inspect barrels, how to make sure that a barrel is going to not turn on me,” he said. “That’s one of those things that I just kind of had to learn the hard way. I had to dump a few batches, unfortunately, but it’s been a learning process.”
What homebrewers should know about small barrels
Along the way, Cervantes discovered Midwest Barrel Co. He was looking for small barrels in that 5 to 15-gallon range.
“As a homebrewer, you’re not doing 53-gallon batches – or I wasn’t, anyway,” he said.
But those smaller barrels treat beer differently as it ages inside them. That tip is one thing Cervantes said he would emphasize to other homebrewers.
“One thing I learned early on is that a lot of these small barrels impart a lot of spirit character,” he said.
Now, for some, that strong spirit character is just fine. Cervantes, however, said he likes to strike a balance between the spirit and the oak flavors from the barrel.
“I’ve noticed that with some of the barrels, especially the ones that (Midwest Barrel Co.) has that are super fresh, those imparted a lot of spirit character,” he said. “Like I said, sometimes you want that. But I’m a big fan of balance myself, so I quickly learned how to work with those.”
To find the right balance, Cervantes would rinse out the barrels with 200 degree water. Not only does that wash out a bit of spirit character, but it sanitizes the inside too. The spirit flavors will still come through after the rinse, he added.
As for other tips, Cervantes stressed proper care and sanitation.
“Know your barrels, know what you want, know what you expect,” Ricky said. “And obviously sanitation is key.”
A reputation built on seriously good barrel-aged homebrews
Cervantes has a knack for crafting great brews. He became known for the quality of his barrel-aged homebrewed beers. Posting his experiences to Instagram may have helped get his name out there, as did the fact that he’s very active in the Chicago beer scene both online and at events.
But good, ol’ fashion boots on the ground marketing is probably what really got his name – and beers – out there.
“To be honest, I made quite a bit of a following as a homebrewer, actually,” he said. “I would do these barrel-aged stouts and barleywines and then I would go to a lot of these beer releases where people are lining up outside and it’s a big bottle share, effectively. I’d be just passing out homebrew and sampling out and people were blown away. On several occasions, I heard that my beer was better than the beer they were lining up for.”
An opportunity opens more doors
Cervantes said he didn’t hit homebrew home runs right away. There was plenty of trial and error.
“I dumped a lot of batches, a lot of money down the drain,” he said.
But eventually he found his rhythm and became very good. Then, an opportunity came up. He was able to take a beer recipe that he created himself and brew a large batch at a brewery.
The beer was an instant success.
“It sold out in a day and when those 400 people lined up outside of the brewery, that’s kind of when I was like, well, maybe I’ve got something,” Cervantes said.
That’s when a thought planted itself in Cervantes’ mind: Maybe brewing wasn’t always going to be just a home hobby.
Maybe he could make it commercially by starting a brewery of his own and sharing his craft beer with the Chicagoland area.
Turns out, he’s pretty dang good at that, too.
Start barrel-aging your homebrews!
Are you a homebrewer interested in learning more about barrel-aging your brews? Get our Homebrewer’s Guide to Barrel-Aging to learn more!