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Beyond Oak: Tips from the Pros

There are many woods beyond oak that can add complexity to beer. Two pros who know their way around these exotic flavors share their top tips.

Wayne Wambles, Brewmaster at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida

photo by Matt Fuj

We’ve used many exotic woods at Cigar City Brewing over the years. The first one we used back in the pilot days was Spanish cedar. We initially infused it into an early prototype for Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout. We were pleasantly surprised by the resinous character that it provided to the already existing forward roasted barley expression. They seemed to pair well. As we continued to experiment with it, we began trialing it in IPAs. This allowed us to understand the true nature of the wood because the wood was no longer competing with the assertive roasted grain character. We noticed that it displayed a forward white grapefruit character, along with white pepper and sandalwood. This ending up being a better idea in the end and led to the development of Humidor IPA, which is called Spanish Cedar Jai Alai today. The wood is not cedar but a form of mahogany. If too much is infused into the beer, it will take on a harsh resinous character. Experience helps to guide the usage rate to achieve the desired expression. 

We also trialed Cypress because it is an indigenous, abundant, local wood in Florida. By this time, I began to realize that testing in lighter colored beers with more malt expression and less hop expression provided a better understanding of how the wood was impacting the beer. Cypress can have a yellow cake expression and does exhibit some vanilla notes as well. For this reason, we decided to use the wood in a base beer that was like helles lager and infused with strawberries to create a strawberry shortcake concept. We also used this wood successfully in an imperial milk stout. 

African Padauk wood was an interesting one. It’s a beautiful wood, visually. It seemed a shame to destroy it to make beer but I found that it had some unique components, so I decided to try it. The wood displays delicate chocolate and cinnamon notes but can become very tannic, if left in contact with the beer too long. I infused it into a unique brown ale that I would refer to as a modern brown ale, in which I reduced some of the roasted grains to allow the wood to shine through.

Tamamuri was a unique wood that I discovered while working with Darwin Brewing. We brought in seven different woods from the Amazon and tested them all in neutral lager beers. We allowed them two weeks of static contact in crowlers. There were two that stood out in the end, Cocobolo and Tamamuri. We decided Tamamuri was more inspiring and brewed a Maibock with aji amarillo peppers and infused it with Tamamuri. Tamamuri has a pear to pear brandy expression and is not easy to describe. It has a pomme feel. The concept was designed to incorporate elements that would be found in Peruvian culture. 

One of my favorite non-oak alternatives has been Amburana. It’s a wood that is native to South America and it is used for the construction of Cachaca barrels. It has a distinct gingerbread spice aroma/flavor with lofty vanilla. I’ve used this in several beers, all of them bigger, maltier beers, with great results. Imperial brown ale, imperial stout, and Baltic porter are examples of what has worked well in the past, but this wood could work very well in lower ABV, maltier beers too, like English brown ale. It’s a very forward wood and can easily dominate the flavor profile if not infused carefully.

I’ll leave the pairing of woods with adjuncts up to the imagination. They can create added depth, but I prefer to spotlight the uniqueness of the wood versus overshadowing it.

Aging the wood outside will allow some of the green character to dissipate. Toasting is another good measure to take prior to use. We usually have them processed into spirals and then toasted. If this is being attempted at home with local wood, results may vary.

Toasting the wood in an oven at a low setting could very well help to remove any beer spoiling organisms that might be present in the wood but is not guaranteed. It is simply a precaution. Holding at 175 °F (79 °C) for 30 minutes would likely eradicate many bacteria and offer a slight degree of caramelization of the wood sugars.

I would suggest using smaller growlers and making sure they are purged well to avoid any oxidation that might result in paper to cardboard character that might be confused with tannins from the wood sample.

Fill the growler with a neutral or less assertive beer, like Munich helles or American blonde ale. This will allow them to assess the impact of the wood more readily without interjecting esters, hops, or roasted malts.

Allow at least 14 days of static contact time and store in the refrigerator to reduce staling of the beer.

Following the contact time, simply decant into a glass that allows for proper, focused delivery of aromatics to the nose and drink the sample. Decide whether it’s something that could positively contribute to the beer. Smelling and tasting beers or new raw materials usually gives me ideas about how to use them with other raw materials or base styles of beer. If it’s not inspiring or you don’t see a use, move on until you find one that is promising.

Negative samples usually express high levels of phenols. Clove is usually one of the more dominant ones. These samples could still be trialed, and they may work well in a Belgian-style beer, for instance, but I’ve never been successful with samples that displayed high, single note, phenol levels. Amburana is one of the exceptions but keep in mind that it’s not single note.

Negative samples could also display smokey notes (phenols again), which might not express as smokey in the finished beer but in other ways that might express more like autolytic, meat-like aromas and flavors. I avoid smoke phenols in exotic wood samples. If I want smoke, there are many other proven ways to infuse it into beer. 

I also consider neutral samples to be negative samples. Neutral samples either have nothing to offer or they are so subtle that you might not ever get them to express in even a delicate beer. These samples will also tend to be tannic and papery.

Positive samples can have a massive array of possibilities that can express as fruit, phenols (baking spices . . . not one note clove/smokey/medicinal . . . vanilla is a singular positive example and it is common in oak), woodiness, and tannins to name a few. If you feel that it is pleasing, give it a shot.

Keep in mind that not all specific types of wood have the same quality. You may be able to obtain a sample of Spanish cedar, for instance, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be of a high enough quality to use in the brewing process. Spanish cedar is a good wood to use as an example. If it is lower quality, it can smell like hamster bedding and pencil shavings, devoid of the white grapefruit and white pepper. Finding the right quality for this variety is very important. It must pass the aromatic test prior to using it in beer and even better to take it a step farther and test in a sample beer in growlers or crowlers to ensure quality before implementing it into a larger batch of beer.

Sensory of any exotic wood prior to larger scale use is imperative, even if you have used it before. If it’s not from the same lot from the same proven source, you should always test prior to using it in any scaled-up versions of beer. 

Be curious and exploratory but be careful. Do research before taking something from the forest and using it in beer. Some woods can contain toxins. Better to be safe than sorry. Aside from necessary caution, there are a large amount of unexplored possibilities out there that are waiting to be discovered. These could add to the uniqueness of beer complexity and cultural reflections in the future.

Jamey Adams, Brewmasater/Founder at Arches Brewing in Hapeville, Georgia

Southern Bel’ is a Belgian ale with Peruvian Palo Santo wood. Palo Santo is a protected wild tree that grows from Southern Mexico down to Peru. It has been used for centuries for its mystical properties when burned as incense or by extracting the essential oils. It comes bundled as short, thin pieces of wood called smudging sticks. Due to its protected nature, only the fallen limbs can be harvested. We add these smudging sticks to finished beer and the alcohol acts as a solvent. The flavor profile that gets extracted by the alcohol in the beer is identical to the distinct smell of the essential oils. Since most people have never tasted this wood, their brains work overtime trying to place the flavors into categories that they have experienced before. The most common flavors associated with Southern Bel’ are coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  

In Arches’ early days, we were trying to round out our portfolio with a beer that we could honestly say “You’ve never had a beer like this before.” We took our Belgian blonde (hence the Bel’ in Southern Bel’) and all got to pick a wood species that we had never tried before. I, being from Texas, chose mesquite, which turned the blonde into a redhead overnight. Our head brewer at the time, Greg Mickle, chose a wood species that, frankly, I had never heard of — Palo Santo (Holy Wood).

The recipe works so well because the slight phenolic character of the esters in our Belgian blonde really complement the flavor of the essential oils in the Palo Santo to create the truly unique Southern Bel’. The blonde recipe also uses a number of specialty grains including biscuit, aromatic, special B, and honey malts.  

When experimenting with different woods, it’s always best to try it with a more neutral flavor. We are lucky in that sense as we make a really light lager that when paired with different woods allows us to differentiate the flavors that are coming from each wood species and also helps to determine dosing rates and contact times. All of these factors need to be accounted for when adding wood to beer.  

I think it’s important to experiment with different ways to get the flavor of the wood into the beer, but keep in mind that these woods do not come sanitized and there are a number of living creatures that call the wood their home. 

A last bit of advice for homebrewers: Amazon is great, but I recommend contacting a local woodworking group to see if they have any scraps to try in your next project. Collaboration builds community!