The Albany Brew Crafters is running a Barrel project. In the first brew in the project, several brewers made a Russian Imperial Stout that aged for about six months. I’ve only had a sip, but it was delicious.
After this brew, the barrel project landed in my lap. As did the barrel:
The antics and drama with this barrel have been many, and I’ll share more stories later, but one particular story is important enough to call out on its own, as a public service.
Barrels need to be kept wet, so the wood swells and is watertight. But when empty, a wet barrel is fertile ground for mold and bacteria. The typical solution is to flood the barrel with SO2, which inhibits this growth. Wineries and large breweries do this with a magic wand that can inject SO2 from a tank.
For smaller operations, there are sulfur wicks which can be burned to produce SO2. The Internet is rife with warnings that burning a wick in a barrel full of alcohol vapors is explosive. There are also warnings that if the wick falls into a wet spot on the barrel it will produce sulfurous acid which must then be neutralized through an alkaline rinse followed by a citric acid rinse. But I cannot find one warning about the dangers of inhaling SO2.
After cleaning and drying our barrel, I returned to the brewery to burn a sulfur stick. I rolled the barrel outside for adequate ventilation, but in the slight breeze had trouble getting matches to stay lit. After a few tries I saw some darkening of the sulfur stick, but in the bright sunlight I couldn’t tell if it was burning. I leaned in for a closer look, and got a lungful of SO2. My throat burned, and I coughed quite a lot.
The MSDS for Sulfur Dioxide is not a pleasant read just moments after having inhaled it. The stuff is highly toxic, and reacts with anything wet – such as mucous membranes or even your skin – to produce a corrosive acid.
My cough subsided quickly, the burning in my throat was minor, and I wasn’t having any trouble breathing, so I decided not to seek medical attention immediately. The next day, though, I had a terrible headache that became a fever, so I did visit a doctor. He wasn’t able to determine whether the fever was related to the inhalation, but cleared me of the respiratory side-effects of inhalation. Lost time from work, medical bills, and sick over a long weekend: a big price to pay for a batch of beer.
So if you haven’t figured it out, the moral of the story is: When handling a sulfur wick, take every precaution to avoid inhaling or exposing yourself to the vapors.
- Burn it outside
- Don’t work alone
- Wear impermeable gloves
- Keep your face well clear of the wick
- Stay upwind
P.S. In all the excitement, I dropped the half-burned wick into the barrel, as it shrinks while it burns and came loose from the wire holder I constructed. That poor barrel may be a planter soon!