Small Pony Barrel Works – Ottawa’s Beer Scene Just got More Exciting

An article by Noah Forrest

Small Pony Barrel Works opened its doors to the public at the tail end of 2017. Located in Kanata (just west of Ottawa), this new and innovative brewery focuses solely on Barrel-aged products – and in particular, sours.

Barrel-aging is nothing new, the modern craft-beer scene is loaded with various products that utilize barrels in all sorts of amazing ways. However, the process is lengthy and challenging, especially when focusing solely on sours. Because of this I was somewhat surprised to see this all-barrel brewery come into fruition, but also because sour beer is still quite niche in these parts – and although the scene is starting to boom in Ottawa, it isn’t quite where Toronto and Montreal are just yet.

That said, this is amazing and exciting. I’m extremely happy to see this happen, and I’m sure Small Pony is going to do well. Once you fall under the spell of well made barrel-aged sours – where the layered acidity carries an unmatched complexity – it can be hard going back to simple kettle-sours. 

I had a chance to connect with owner and brewer Sean McVeigh to answer some questions about his new operation. As well, I got my hands on their first four beers, which I examined at length. Enjoy! 

Small Pony Barrel Works has been in the making for some time now. Can you tell me a bit about its history and how it all got started?

“Small Pony Barrel Works started as an answer to a problem I was facing early in 2016. I started leaning towards the sour styles a couple of years earlier and picked up my first wine barrel to use for my homebrew sours. Barrels are the right way to do things, but the downside as a homebrewer is that these barrels are quite large and I found myself wondering what to do with all of this sour beer I was brewing. I started investigating the feasibility of opening a brewery at home and packing my basement with barrels, but regulations and being in a rural area would have made it challenging. I met with other brewery owners in the area and along the west coast in the U.S. who were producing sour beers and really started to form a picture of what an all sour brewery could look like, and so I just dove in and went for it. A year of construction and brewing and waiting later, here we are!”

At this point, it seems most breweries have Barrel programs in some capacity. However, they usually only account for a smaller percentage of their total beer production. What made you decide to oak-age 100% of your beer? Especially given the length of time it takes to produce.

“I really feel that barrel aged sours have more character than when made through other means. There is also something really pleasing about having a cellar full of barrels which all have their own unique personality. We may brew a larger batch and split it across as many as 16 or 17 barrels, and when we are sampling through them over the months, it’s surprising sometimes that two containers of the same original beer can have notably different aromas and flavours. The freedom to run hundreds of parallel experiments like this really gives you a nice creative outlet when it comes time to blend and package a beer. We really are spending several months building a beer… brew day is just the start of that process, unlike other more conventional beers.”

Your first four beers are all sours. Is Small Pony Barrel Works only going to create wild and sour beers, or will you also be making other barrel aged creations that aren’t inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria?

“We’re focused on producing only barrel aged sour beers, and don’t have any plans to branch out from that. There are many other breweries producing excellent beers in that space already, and any time we would spend focusing on other beers, would be time taken away from learning from our sour beer program. There is also of course the challenge of trying to keep the non-sour side of a brewery free from contamination. This is one reason that many breweries are not looking at putting out funky and sour beers.”

What can we expect to see in 2018 from Small Pony?

“The plan for 2018 is to really explore the sour style and release 15 or 20 different beers. We have lots of good beer brewed and aging in the cellar — some of that is earmarked for specific blends, and some that we are waiting to see how it evolves over time before deciding on a direction to take.”

As I was mentioning above, Small Pony launched their opening with four beers to consume on site or purchase to go. I had a chance to review them below! Enjoy!

Orange Whisper

The first beer on this list is Orange Whisper, a blend of golden sour beers, aged in oak barrels with Mosaic hops. The nose is a rich and bright Mosaic hop bomb, tossing loads of tangerine and under-ripe clementines at my senses. The oak adds a touch of vanilla and earthiness, creating an almost creamcicle likeness – but nothing cloying or weird – like a lactose IPA. It’s truly citrus all the way, with orange everything at the front, followed by some more sharp grapefruit pith, and a touch of hard to place, almost savory notes. 

Up front on the palate I’m hit with some ample and sharp acidity, which cleans the palate immediately, leaving echoes of the beer behind it. Like the nose, Mosaic is the focal point, providing beautiful fresh tangerine and a touch of earthy grassiness. The oak is not particularly apparent, but adds pleasant mouth-puckering tannins that further dry things out.

This beer is sharp, flavourful and very well balanced. The acidity is definitely present, but it’s also very drinkable – a balance that is often hard to pull off. I do find it just a touch watery however, but overall this is definitely a winner.

They Go Up!

They go up! is a golden sour beer, aged in oak barrels with Montmorency cherries. The nose is big cherry pie, with some light sulphur, and juicy berries. Vanilla and almond cake aromas come through as well.

The palate matches, with a big cherry pie essence and lots of vanilla-like accents. The acidity is present, but not over the top, lending a sharp balance to the beer. It’s got some tannins going on, which add a tartness to the acidity and sweet cherry essence.

Although I prefer a more jammy fruited sour, there is a good easy drinkability here. It’s very light on the palate front, and I could use more fruit, but it’s still enjoyable.

P.A. System

P.A. System is a golden sour, aged in oak barrels with peaches and apricots. The nose is a zesty mix of bright citrus, coupled with huge apricot and peach. Some acidic compounds are extremely apparent on the aromatics, alongside ample bretty funk, delivering dusty books and a little damp basement.

The palate matches, but is less juicy. Although aggressively sour, the acidity is balanced well against the fruit. The apricots and nectarines are clearly here, adding layers of fruit complexities against the acidic backdrop. Just like on the nose, there is a wild brett profile that carries some light dusty funk and dry oak tannins. This is quite delicious.

Something for Everyone

Something for Everyone is a golden sour blend, composed of different barrel-aged beers that hold similar characteristics. The nose is a bright acidic pleasure, carrying loads of ripe nectarine, citrus, and cherry. Some light vanilla comes through as well, lending a subtle oak presence alongside grapefruit rinds as well.

On the palate things are nicely balanced. There is a “Gueuze-like” acidic profile, minus the big earthy funk. Instead, this blend is more clean. As well, it holds a richer, more rounded profile if compared to the other three.

Lots of papaya and mango meet lemon and grapefruit citrus components. The beer is sour, but also tart, providing a tangy and tannic finish that cleans the palate after every sip, reminiscent of pithy grapefruit rinds. I believe this is my favourite of the four. I love it.

It’s extremely exciting to see an all-barrel-aged-sour Brewery open its doors this close to Montreal. I’m happy for the Ottawa folks that have the sour bug, as they will be able to get their tart on pretty much any time they want. All four of these beers are still available at the brewery. If you’re interested, check out their Facebook page of opening hours and availability. I highly recommend visiting and grabbing some bottles – especially if you like sour beer.

An article by Noah Forrest

Photography by Noah Forrest