From the day we introduced our El Catador Barrel-aged Beer Club in 2013, our goal was to foster a community of beer lovers who would appreciate our most ambitious and interesting projects and to include as many Cigar City supporters as possible in this community. Vigilant about the quality of the beer first and foremost; every beer released to our El Catador Club members we have been proud of, and feel that we’ve always succeeded in our primary goal of producing world-class beer.
We have also been attentive to the customer service portion of the club. Those who have been with us from Club #1 have seen major improvements to the sign-up process, bottle pick-ups, trustee assignments and nearly every other facet of our interaction with Club members. You have also seen club editions of various lengths; some have lasted as long as 17 months and some club editions have seen bottles are released in a very short period of time. As part of our continuing customer service focus for the club, we’d like to take this opportunity to tell the story of our barrel-aging process, explain the reasons behind the different timelines and offer some expectations for the El Catador Club moving forward.
Every step of the production process in creating barrel-aged beers is an exercise in patience and balance. We are currently producing as much beer as humanly possible at our facility in Tampa, meaning that the continuing production of our year-round beers like Jai Alai does have a direct impact on our ability to produce seasonal, specialty and barrel-aged projects. If it’s going to prevent us from supplying the market with our core beers, some of those specialty beers get put on the back burner, so to say. When able, our Production team will squeeze new barrel-aged projects onto our schedule to make sure there is a succession of beers for our club members, and sometimes those opportunities to produce beer destined for barrels fall more closely together than others. Further complicating production is the need to make enough beer to supply the entirety of the Club. It’s not as easy as scheduling a single, small batch of beer like you may see in our Tasting Room; there needs to be enough beer to supply the entire club and have some wiggle room for unplanned circumstances like spillage, failed barrels, and other minor catastrophes.
Once the beer has been produced and transferred to barrels, a variety of factors can contribute to the speed (or lack thereof) that a barrel-aged beer will be ready to bottle. The condition of the barrels when we acquire them varies from strong, clean and wet to leaky, dirty and dry. A barrel that’s been emptied of a wine or spirit very recently will be able to hold beer much more quickly than an older barrel that will require cleaning or rehydrating and will impart spirit character much more quickly. The temperature and humidity of the environment where barrels are stored is critical to the speed of barrel aging and with our current barrel storage area we are certainly at the whim of our Florida climate. Finally, the ability for wood to harbor beer spoiling organisms like brettanomyces, wild saccharomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus and acetobacter also make wood-aged beer fraught with danger. There has been unfortunate run-ins with each of these organisms and they’ve colluded to ruin some very promising beers. When we have a leaky barrel or a dry barrel, or have to reject a barrel due to the presence of spoilage organisms it has a tangible effect on the timeline of the El Catador Club.
Once the beer is in barrels, we are essentially at the whim of the beers. Sometimes we find that the wood and spirit character that we’re looking for from a barrel is present in a few weeks, sometimes it can take several months. Even batches of the same beer in the same type of barrels can develop differently and finding the sweet spot in time between different barrels is one of the satisfying parts of the art-science balance in beer production that we love. Frequent tasting panels are conducted to monitor the progress of these barrel-aged beers and though we try to anticipate how quickly different beers will mature, we find over and over again that “the beer is ready when the beer is ready”, to quote Brewmaster Wayne Wambles.
As a result of all of these colluding elements, we’ve always been hesitant to set any guarantees on club timeline. We’ve come to a point, however, where we need to set some expectations to fulfill our commitment to customer service. Our goal moving forward is to release fourteen bottles to our El Catador Club members every year. This is indeed a goal, not a guarantee.
What else can you expect from the El Catador Club? More ambitious beer projects, more El Catador Club exclusive events, more improvements to our online portal and in-person pick-up processes. We’ve always aimed to create a bottle club that we ourselves would like to be a part of, and that means constantly evaluating our processes and procedures. If something is going to make El Catador Club membership a better, more valuable experience, we’ll try and make it happen.