How a P.E.I. entrepreneur is cashing in on the latest beer trend
'Tiny wooden wonder' brews up unique beer with subtle flavours not found in stainless steel vats
Jordan Stetson of Freetown, P.E.I., believes he is Canada's first manufacturer of foeders — large wooden barrels used to age beer, wine and spirits.
The vessels have long been used to ferment wine and spirits and can last for decades, but now craft breweries in North America are using the casks to brew up tasty new creations like sour and aged beers.
"Foeders lend themselves to producing those styles of beers, so as those styles of beers become more popular, breweries are looking at being able to produce those beers in larger volumes than they would in, say a wine barrel," said Stetson, 28.
'Work with my hands'
Stetson had previously worked with Diversified Metal Engineering, which created stainless steel tanks for breweries around the world, and had seen foeders at work in clients' brewing operations.
Many breweries are importing foeders previously used to brew wine or spirits from Europe.
With a background in and a passion for carpentry, he decided to try building them from scratch, calling his business New World Foeders.
"I was in kind of a desk job and I was looking to get back to something I could work with my hands," he said.
'Everything old is new again'
Stetson points out that 500- or 600-litre wooden foeders (pronounced FOOD-er) are actually a historic method of brewing — it was only in recent decades that stainless steel tanks became popular.
The wood itself lends flavour to what is brewed inside, as does what was previously brewed in it — think cognac or cabernet sauvignon.
Stetson sold his first foeder last year to Upstreet Craft Brewing in Charlottetown — they call the 600-litre vessel their "tiny wooden wonder."
This is the first time I had to build something made out of wood that had to keep water in.— Jordan Stetson
"Everything old is new again," said Upstreet beer engineer Mike Hogan. "People are realizing the older-style of beers were made in wooden vats, they kind of develop a different type of character depending on the wood that's used."
The brewery has made several popular batches in the foeder, and Hogan notes that each new wort or unfermented beer takes on a bit of flavour from the batch before.
"What we're finding is there's a lot of character left," he said. They've even brewed existing recipes like their Commons and Rhuby Social beer in the foeder, and "within a few weeks or a month it becomes a completely different beer, totally different flavour."
While Hogan calls it exciting, he said brewers also have to be "open and curious and excited" about what the beer will taste like since consistent flavour is impossible to achieve.
Upstreet's foeder even has a name, as do all of their brewing tanks: Come pick me up, the title of a song by Ryan Adams.
Won $25K grant
Last fall Stetson competed for and won an Innovation PEI $25,000 Ignition grant, which is for entrepreneurs who need start-up capital for new business ventures.
He has used the money to buy equipment like saws, shapers and planers, and supplies to make the foeders. The quarter-sawn white oak he uses to make them is expensive and must be aged, he said.
He taught himself to make the wooden barrels, saying it was a challenge.
"There's no formal cooperages left in Canada really to learn from, so I had to teach myself that craft first."
It took Stetson about a year of research and trial and error to be confident his designs would hold liquid, he said.
"In my background in carpentry, I've had to build lots of wooden structures that had to keep water out but this is the first time I had to build something made out of wood that had to keep water in," he said with a laugh.
He now works out of a workshop in Freetown, and is filling several special orders for foeders from breweries and home brewers in the Maritimes.
He still works part time as a carpenter, but hopes to make foeders a full-time enterprise soon and eventually hire some employees.
Stetson has put about $15,000 of his own money into the venture so far, he said.
"I see it as being a worthwhile investment as well as being something that I enjoy."
Stetson's foeders cost between $3,000 and $15,000 depending on the size and type of fittings.