Dear Mr. Wizard,
My buddies and I are thinking about trying to make a Utopia clone. I understand that Sam Adams likes to age their beers in old sherry casks. How can we imitate sherry casks with oak chips? I’ve seen a variety of toast levels, but no one seems to sell sherry or bourbon cask chips. Can we just soak the oak chips in sherry for a while before we add them to the secondary? Flexibility to try bourbon or sherry chips with other beers would be great.
Mr. Wizard replies:
Popularity of beers aged in a variety of used oak barrels has really blossomed over the last decade and Sam Adams is one of the breweries that has come out with several of such beers. My take on these beers is that the used oak barrel acts as a vector to flavor beer with what was previously in the barrel. Stouts aged in old bourbon barrels taste like stout flavored with bourbon and beers aged in old sherry casks taste like sherry-flavored beer. This is a pretty obvious observation but has a practical implication for homebrewers who do not have access to used oak barrels — or do not brew enough beer to fill a barrel.
Homebrewing is very different from commercial brewing in that homebrew is not taxed and the regulations governing commercial brewing do not apply. At home or in a pilot brewery a brewer can make an oaky bourbon stout by adding oak chips to a stout during aging to get the desired affect from the oak and then blend this beer with bourbon, whisky or scotch to add whatever flavor and intensity is desired from the liquor.
Commercial brewers can use all sorts of approved ingredients and for ingredients that are not on the approved list, a special statement of process must be filed with the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). If I were to review a statement of process proposing to add liquor to beer, my suspicions would be raised since the tax rate on beer is lower than that of wine and liquor. I am not suggesting that beer aged in used barrels is done to discretely add liquor to beer, but this method is available to homebrewers and not so easily to commercial brewers.
When I consider making a clone, the first thing I do is carefully taste the beer of interest and develop a flavor profile in my head. The idea here is not to determine how the beer was made, but rather to simply define its flavor as completely as possible. The next question is how to replicate the beer flavor given the tools available. In the case of Sam Adams Utopia, one of the primary flavor descriptors may indeed be “sherry cask.” This beer and others brewed by Sam Adams are also very high in alcohol — brewing the base beer is a challenge that goes beyond simply getting the barrel flavors.
“Sherry cask” flavor can be further broken down into oak character and sherry character. If I were brewing this sort of beer I would address the flavors individually. Oak character can be added either by adding oak chips to beer or aging the beer in a barrel. I would lean toward buying a new small oak barrel because oxygen slowly diffuses into a barrel during aging and this probably has an influence on barrel-aged beer. To my palate, many of the strong beers aged in oak have flavors associated with oxidation. This term is almost always a negative connotation in the world of beer, but not all oxidation is necessarily bad when very strong beers are aged. In high alcohol beers, oxidized flavors may remind one of raisins, dates and sherry. In my experience with aging beer in new oak barrels, a couple of months are required before the beer really starts to take on appreciable oak flavor. Tasting throughout the aging process is important and there is no magic timeframe.
The same is true if one chooses to add oak chips to the secondary fermentation. After I got the brew where I wanted it with respect to beer flavor, oak flavor and aged flavors, I would begin to play with adding the wine or spirit component. This type of blending is always best done by preparing several samples of beer with varying levels of blended mixtures so that the flavor impact can be tasted over a range of concentrations. You may find that even a little of the planned flavor additive makes for a vile brew and you can avert a disaster.
This method is probably not for every brewer as it is actually quite unorthodox. For that matter, aging beer in an old bourbon, sherry or whisky barrel is pretty strange in the mind of many brewers. However, if the purpose of homebrewing is to create beer with a certain flavor profile, it seems that the finished product is more important than the method used to make it. If you really wanted to soak oak chips in the wine or spirit of your choice and then add the infused chips to your beer, I think the flavor would be more difficult to control and the method is no more “pure” than adding the two ingredients independently. Good luck in your endeavors!
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