An Inside Look at Proper Brewing’s Barrel Program

Proper Brewing - Barrel Program - Featured

A single 22-ounce bottle of Proper Brewing Co.’s latest barrel-aged beer sits silently on the table. Its horned-skull label a haunting representation of what could be inside — a raucous underworld gathering backed by a heavy metal soundtrack.

In other words, it’s a badass-looking beer.

Carcosa Gruit-style Ale with herbs from Proper Brewing

“Carcosa is our H.P. Lovecraft,” says Jeff Bunk, Proper’s brewery manager, referencing the American author famous for weird and horror fiction. “I’m excited about this one, mostly because what I envisioned for it has come true.”

And it’s not simply the artwork that’s unique.

Carcosa (9.5% ABV) is an ancient Gruit-style beer brewed with herbs (yarrow, sweet gale, Labrador tea) rather than hops. The beer’s then soured and aged for more than a year in Pinot Noir barrels (and one Merlot barrel). It’s the newest full-fledged member of Proper’s burgeoning barrel program.

Bunk, who’s spearheading the brewery’s barrel program, and Proper head brewer Jack Kern are self-described “devout metalheads.” The inspiration for the latest creation came from High on Fire, a Grammy award-winning metal band with an album titled Luminiferous and a seven-minute, headbanging track called Carcosa (as well as an extraterrestrial city popularized by Lovecraft devotees).

“I think it will stand out in the arsenal,” Bunk says.

That arsenal, of barrel-aged beers at least, now includes nearly a half-dozen releases — and four different styles — in just over a year, with at least three more on the way in the coming months.

“It’s Jeff’s project and we’re living in it,” Kern says. “He’s giving it all the attention; that’s his child. I’ve had my children in that same realm, but these barrels are Jeff’s.”

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Proper Brewing Brewery Manager Jeff Bunk, left, and Head Brewer Jack Kern discuss the brewery’s burgeoning barrel program.

🎙 Listen: Proper’s Barrel Program

BONUS: Subscribe to the Utah Beer News Podcast and listen to our interview with Jeff Bunk, who’s spearheading the Proper Brewing barrel program, and Jack Kern, the Salt Lake brewery’s head brewer. Hear how Proper approaches its barrel program, learn the backstory for many of the barrel-aged beers, get a behind-the-beer look at Great American Beer Festival gold medal-winning Proper Beer, and more!

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“Where I see barrel projects, for the most part, I want it to have that cultic following. You have to wait and if you miss it, I’m sorry, you missed it. (You lose) a lot of the nuance of barrel aging if you can get it regularly all the time. I think it takes away some of the magic.”

Jeff Bunk
Brewery manager • Proper Brewing Co.

Beginning a Barrel Program

Jeff Bunk, right, and Jack Kern enjoy a Carcosa Gruit-style ale in Proper Brewing’s barrel room.

Bunk, who began his craft beer career at Epic Brewing in 2011, built an impressive résumé before landing at Proper in late 2018.

He worked at the Utah Brewers Cooperative (Squatters/Wasatch) in Salt Lake City, then he headed to Portland, Ore., and got a gig at a cidery while waiting for something in beer to open up.

Soon, Breakside Brewery hired him and he spent three years learning from brewmaster Ben Edmunds, a brewer Bunk calls “one of the best barrel guys” whose “palate is phenomenal.”

A short stint at House Spirits Distillery followed before Bunk connected with Proper co-founder Rio Connelly toward the end of 2018.

Once at Proper, he quickly began developing a barrel program. About a year later, Proper Brewing released its first barrel-aged beer — an Imperial Stout aged in Grenache wine and rye whiskey barrels.

Barrel aging, Bunk says, is where a brewer’s creativity can really shine. It lets the world know what you’re capable of creating.

“At the end of the day, it’s more of a hubris thing,” Bunk says. “You want to show people you’re skilled enough and can wait until it cycles through to become what it needs to be. Show the population and colleagues — check out my blend. The brewers hit (the base beer) on point, we waited for the exact right moment to barrel it, and the blend is right on.”

Read more about Proper Brewing

Barrel-Aged Beers

Two versions of Monolith. The 2019 iteration is on the right, and the 2020 version is on the left.

Proper’s young barrel program already features a diverse portfolio of beers.

Monolith, the aged version of the brewery’s Grand Sláinte Imperial Stout, sat in barrels that were once home to Grenache wine and then rye whiskey. It kicked off the program. Since then, Proper’s flexed its creative muscles.

The Lineup

Here’s Proper’s barrel-aged beer lineup thus far:

  • Monolith (2019 and 2020): The initial Imperial Stout marked the beginning of Proper’s barrel program. The second iteration, aged in the same barrels about twice as long, hit the market in late 2020. The final version featuring the Grenache/rye whiskey barrels will be released later in 2021. The 2022 version could find itself aged in Port barrels, Bunk says.
  • Coward’s Fist (2020): The smallest batch — 40 cases — of Proper’s barrel beers, Coward’s Fist is Revenge Double IPA aged for eight months in Hammer Spring Distillers gin barrels.
  • Géol (2020): Pronounced yule, Géol is Proper’s popular English-style Barleywine of the same name. The barrel version aged for about 10 months in Pinot Noir barrels.
  • Carcosa (2021): A Gruit-style ale aged in wine barrels for more than a year. It features herbs rather than hops, as is traditional of Gruits.

The following don’t yet have names or release dates. Proper expects them to be available sometime in 2021:

  • Lei Effect: Proper’s Gose with passionfruit and guava is aging in rum barrels. The idea is to create a daiquiri-esque beer. To take it further, Proper plans to can the beer à la cocktails-in-a-can.
  • Libre: A crisp, Imperial Mexican Lager is now aging in reposado tequila barrels. It’s expected to have a margarita-style flavor and it, too, will be available in cans.
  • Rye Lager: Bunk says he got “a wild hair” and decided to take a traditional Roggenbier and age it in wine barrels.

Barrel-Aged Beers: To Cellar or Not to Cellar

When thinking of barrel-aged beers, a natural inclination is to cellar them. After all, if a beer’s sat in a barrel for several months, maybe a few more in the bottle will make it even better.

The barrel room at Proper Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City.

Not so fast, say Bunk and Kern.

“When a brewer puts a beer out, it’s ready,” Kern says. “I would say drink all of these now. Jeff has done the work.”

That said, as a beer drinker, you’re still welcome to cellar a bottle to see how the character of the beer changes over time.

“(For the most part) you should drink it immediately, but there’s nothing wrong with doing your own experiment,” Kern says.

Carcosa, he adds, could be a good one with which to experiment. “It’s perfect now for what we want,” Kern says. “But if a customer wants something a little more sour, a little more nuanced, or that smoothes out, age it. Particularly this one, there’s no detriment to aging it.”

One barrel beer, however, that should be consumed now and only now is Coward’s Fist. The base beer Double IPA is best fresh, as is the barrel-aged version. The aged version, unlike Revenge Double IPA, isn’t dry-hopped. Yet, some fresh dry-hopped Revenge is blended with the barrel version to give it that characteristic hop-forward aroma and flavor found in IPAs.

“The botanicals mixed with the (Mosaic) hop profile” make for a delicious drinker today, Bunk says.

Brewers Jeff Bunk, left, and Jack Kern release Proper Brewing Co.'s first barrel-aged beer — Monolith.
Brewers Jeff Bunk, left, and Jack Kern release Proper Brewing Co.’s first barrel-aged beer — Monolith — in October 2019.