Article

Beyond the Barrel

BYO-2190102-oak story

We have a love affair with the barrel. For thousands of years people have used barrels for a practical means of transferring and storing goods. Only within the last couple of centuries has their general use given way to lighter, less expensive, and more durable materials, leaving the remaining oak barrels for the beverage makers. Ask a homebrewer about the next big purchase they would like to make for their brew and many will put an oak barrel on the short list. It’s easy to see why, visit your local craft distillery, winery, or brewery and there they are stacked high in neat rows, annotated for when memory fails. Stainless fermenters usually out number them in breweries, but the barrels are where the really special products are being tucked away until they are just right. Who wouldn’t want to add an oak barrel to sit amongst their carboys?

The interest in barrels has never been higher as the number of craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries reach all time highs year after year. With all the demand, prices are steadily increasing, making the cost of a new barrel quite a pricy investment. Even the smaller sizes ideal for homebrewers are still a decent investment. Not only are many people trying to brew on a budget but there is also a movement to decrease the overall footprint of homebreweries as is evidenced by the plethora of all-in-one systems that seem to have exploded into the market. Even a 5- or 10-gallon (19- or 38-L) barrel can take up a considerable amount of space in your brewing area. Add to that, smaller barrels can have a tendency to leak more than their larger counterparts. Most importantly, smaller oak barrels offer a surface area-to-volume ratio that far exceeds that of the 53-gallon (200-L) and 59-gallon (225-L) barrels the pros use. Oak character can become excessive if not monitored very closely, and oxygen ingress can ruin your beer before you know it.

What do we do the rest of the time we want to add oak flavor to our beer? Luckily, the modern homebrewer has a variety of options for adding oaky character to their brew without having to store and maintain a barrel at home, all of which are feasible, practical, and cost effective. Let’s run through the various products — what they are, how and when they should be used, and their costs so we can get a better idea of which may be the best fit for your next wood-aged homebrew.

Liquid Oak/Whiskey Flavorings

Products designed for flavoring vodka or neutral spirits can add specific regional flavor profiles such as Bourbons, scotches, brandies, or liqueurs instantly at relatively low cost (Manufacturers like StillSpirits and LiquorKwik provide “cloned” essences, additionally producers of natural fruit flavoring make liquid oak in increasing varieties.) Flavors tend to be more stable over time yet less nuanced and can be added at bottling/kegging because these flavorings do not contain fermentables. Results are highly repeatable especially when using a pipette or syringe to measure the dosage, but a little goes a long way so start with a small amount and add more to taste. Even better, remove a small measured sample that you can dose incrementally until you are happy with the flavor, then scale up the quantity into the full batch volume. Whenever time is a constraint, using liquid flavorings are an excellent option. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $5–$15)

Oak Powder, Pellets

Somewhat like sawdust in texture, oak powder or pellets offers the fastest extraction of flavors over time (besides the liquid additives). Country of origin may be labeled (i.e. French or American) but toast level is usually not, rather offering recommended flavor profiles. Given the short contact time — one to two weeks is usually sufficient — oak powders are more easily used in the primary fermenter than thicker oak pieces but can still be used at any stage of your brew. Similar to dry hopping, powders add a lot of fine particulates that can clog transfers. Once added, pellets quickly break apart, so using a bag, canister, or steeping ball may aid in fining later.

Weigh out powders on a kitchen scale for consistent flavor from batch to batch. Pellets available in carboy-ready sleeves eliminate the mess associated with transferring, however they lack the ability to change the quantity added to a given batch of beer. With the exception of the sleeves, oak powders or pellets are difficult to re-use in another batch later, given that they tend to offer maximum extraction on the first use. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $4–$8 powder, $8–10 sleeve)

Oak Chips

Oak chips are one of the most highly used and least expensive forms of oak available to the homebrewer. Chips are easy to toast at home in the oven to desired levels if you can’t find the toast you want (or just because it’s fun!). Similar quantities can have varied flavor impact on the beer due to the inconsistent shape and size of the individual chips. Moreover, if you are used to very fine chips and find yourself using some that are considerable larger or vice versa, the flavor profile may vary wildly. The smallest chips can clog transferring equipment, so you may consider using a bag or filter screen on your siphoning equipment.

Some complain of a perceived bitterness or harshness where oak chips have been added due to the increased proportion of end cut to the long grain of the wood. That can work in your favor if first soaking them in a wine or spirit before adding to beer. Chips will easily piggyback their character because they act like a sponge. You can even find chips on the market that are already soaked in various spirits. Within one or two weeks of use chips will be spent, rendering them a poor candidate for multiple re-uses. Considering the short contact time, they are often added during primary fermentation or in the conditioning phase. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $4–$10)

Oak Cubes

Roughly half an inch (1.25 cm) to a side, cubes are typically available in either French or American oak and are often blended from various toasts, however they can be found in individual levels. They are easy to scale up or down to accommodate desired oak character by simply counting the number of cubes and are highly consistent from batch-to-batch. It can take up to two months to achieve the full depth of flavor from cubes, but the resulting profile is worth the wait. However, this time constraint makes them difficult to use in the primary fermenter. They are best saved for secondary or beyond.

Much like a barrel that is toasted or charred on the inside while remaining “raw” outside, cubes offer lighter toasts the deeper the beer penetrates the wood, imparting subtleties not found in smaller sized oak alternatives. Whether bagged or loose, there is little chance oak cubes will interfere with racking. Even if added directly to a keg, oak cubes are large enough that they are unlikely to clog a dip tube. Many will even fit into the opening of bottles and therefore are suitable for cellaring. Note, they may expand slightly in the bottle and become impossible to remove.

Cubes are easy to repurpose into another batch, just place them in an airtight container (mason jars and vacuum seal bags work great) until the next batch is ready to be infused.  In an airtight container, soaked wine or liquor cubes will last for months at room temperature, but consider freezing oak from a previous batch of beer if you won’t be using it right away. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $6–$10)

Oak Spheres

Similar to cubes, oak spheres (or oak balls) offer a thickness that increases the depth of character in your beer. By eliminating the corners found on cubes, oak spheres are able to offer a superior level of consistency between lots, ensuring that your favorite specialty beer is on point time and again. They were originally designed and milled to be as large as possible for use in neutral wine barrels where other oak treatments were difficult to remove. These little balls just roll right out after you rack, making clean up a breeze.

Since they were designed for commercial winemakers, both French and American oak is available in all toasts, but it may prove hard to find smaller quantities of all but the most popular varieties.  If you desire a char you will have to do it yourself — get out the kitchen torch and place the spheres on a non-flammable surface.

At an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, spheres still squeeze into the narrow opening of a glass carboy and are easy to measure. Typically added at the rate of one sphere per gallon (4 L), but that can be changed as desired. To ensure the broadest flavor possible, allow up to four months of soak time. These are wonderful for additional uses, offering up to a year of total contact time with your beers. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $7– $13)

Oak Spirals

Available in a wide variety of oaks, toasts, and chars, the precise milling against the grain allows spirals to extract flavor quickly and consistently. They are cut to expose more end in proportion to the long grain of the wood than other staves. The high manufacturing cost makes spirals one of the priciest oak alternative choices for the homebrewer, but it can be a cost that is well worth the regularity. Spirals offer infusion times as short as three to six weeks. To change the overall intensity, just measure in length and break off the desired size.

Smaller 750-mL bottle-sized spirals can be added directly to bomber bottles and are an excellent choice for setting aside something special worth aging if you didn’t want to oak the entire batch. Spirals, like other staves, will not hamper the normal use of a corny keg so can also be added directly to the keg. The milling leaves the oak relatively thin so multiple re-uses should be avoided. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $7–$20, or single-bottle size packages can be bought for $4–$7)

Staves

Planed smooth, oak staves have the closest relationship to a barrel in the proportion of the long grain to capillary exposure (end cut). Shy of only barrels themselves, staves take the longest to impart their full oak character. Staves made for homebrewers are typically sized for a 5- to 6-gallon (19- to 23-L) batch. Lowering that ratio will require the use of a saw to cut the stave down to the required size. It is ill advised to try and snap a piece off of the stave like you might do with a spiral as splitting the stave can lead to characters more closely resembling chips and increase the intensity (not in a good way).

Staves are available in every conceivable toast and char, much like spirals, manufacturers are engineering the shape and thickness of staves to decrease extraction time while providing fuller flavor. Different patterns in the wood change the overall flavor profile and are designed for beer, wine, or spirits respectively. Ultimately, follow the producers’ guidelines for time, but account for at least two months. Many offer a hole drilled in one end or both to attach a string for easy removal or to tie several staves together in sequence. Staves are possibly the best choice for both long-term storage and re-use from beer to beer.

Making staves at home from American white oak can be rewarding especially if you have the opportunity to harvest the wood. It typically takes two seasons at least to properly dry the wood before it is suitable for use. So if you do not have access and have patience, try the local lumberyard but be sure not to purchase any treated wood. Kiln drying is acceptable, but they must contain no chemical desiccants, which can be poisonous. (Average cost for a 5-gallon/19-L batch: $10–$15)

Choosing The “Right” Oak for Your Beer

Coopers and producers of other oak products both overseas and domestically use very similar seasoning conditions to ensure the highest quality. Around the world, cooperages source their oak from three primary types — French, Hungarian, and American.  Few oak alternatives are available in the Hungarian variety by name, though it may be used in certain products that are not identified as such. Hungarian oak is considered to impart a flavor somewhere in between French and American types. Using some of each of the former can result in a flavor that mimics Hungarian. When deciding on French versus American oak treatment, you need to understand and consider the differences between the two flavor profiles. They are not only from different countries but different species of oak altogether. French oak has a tighter grain imparting flavors more slowly with subtle notes of spice and a perceived silky tannic texture. While American white oak has more flavors associated with baking characteristics; caramel notes, vanilla, and an overall creamy mouthfeel. The loose grain of the wood may take less time than its French counterpart given a similar style of treatment, though seems to be less stable over time.

Matching a beer style to an oak profile can feel overwhelming considering the variety of options. It is always best if possible to choose based on tasting notes. If the resulting beer doesn’t taste better, then what is the point? Don’t let anyone else’s “rules” dictate your creativity, but if you are new to oak products then you can certainly see what oak/beer style combinations pros or other experienced homebrewers are doing.

What you need to consider after the flavor, which is paramount, are the practical aspects of using oak in your beers. Do you have time for the treatment you prefer? Is it going to require additional racking or fining? Is it available in the time I need it? Does my chainsaw need to be sharped before trimming this branch?

Re-Re-Use

Oak trees grow slowly. It takes a lifetime before an oak can be harvested, with some coopers preferring trees centuries old. It is no wonder then that barrels are constantly repurposed, likely only out of necessity at first. Then someone realized the potential of reusing oak. Sours in old wine barrels. Stouts in old Bourbon barrels. Why stop? IPA in a red wine barrel that had a course of gin run through it in between? Yes, please. When you see the largest breweries, wineries, and distilleries in the world aging their wares in several barrel types, you have to think perhaps there is more to it than marketing. The three recipes on pages 75–76 are a few of my favorite homebrew recipes in which I’ve used oak alternatives, and you’ll see from the list that the styles vary dramatically. Just because oak in beer is often associated with imperial stouts and sours, the flavors that oak contributes can enhance (and even significantly change for the better) numerous beer styles!

When trying to add a used barrel flavor to beer, soaking your oak alternative in spirits or wine prior to adding will reduce the overall intensity while contributing flavors closer to one that has been freshly dumped. To do this, cover the oak with wine or liquor and let sit in a sealed container at cellar or room temperature for a week or more.  As the contact time increases the flavor the oak product will release will shift from straight oak towards the infusion. Keeping air out is more important for wine than liquor as it oxidizes more quickly and can lead to undesirable flavors. When the oak has soaked up as much of the flavors as you desire, pour off the liquid and add your oak to your beer. Or alternatively, start a second infusion to further reduce the oakiness and add another depth of flavor. There are no strict rules here; if it tastes good in the beer then you’ve done it right! The leftover oaked wine/spirit is a type of flavoring not so different from the ones above and can be added with the oak or later used to quickly intensify those characteristics. If you don’t want to add it to your homebrew, it’s usually quite tasty as a cocktail mixer if there is no other use for it.

Just because you don’t own a barrel doesn’t mean you can’t recreate the finest oak flavors available. And you never have to worry about oak alternatives drying out or leaking. Even when you don’t have a specific project in mind, save those chips, cubes, spirals, spheres, and staves from your last batch in an airtight container. They might just make that next brew even better.

Oak Alternative Recipes

Abysmal Stout (Bourbon “Barrel” Aged)

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.096  FG = 1.020
IBU =  40  SRM = 66  ABV = 11.5%

Ingredients
15 lbs. (6.8 kg) Golden PromiseTM malt
1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) kiln coffee malt (150 °L)
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Briess Midnight Wheat malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal rye malt (75 °L)
0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Victory® malt
2 lbs. (0.9 kg) extra dark candi syrup (primary)
6.5 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 13% alpha acids)
6.5 AAU Nugget hops (30 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 13% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) licorice root (15 min.)
1 vanilla bean (primary)
2 oz. (57 g) Bourbon-soaked American white oak cubes
Imperial A10 (Darkness) or Wyeast 1084 (Irish Ale) or Lallemand Nottingham yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Soak the charred cubes starting on brew day in Bourbon or rye of your choosing (mid-shelf). Mash in the grains with 6.2 gallons (23.4 L)
of 164 °F (73 °C) strike water to achieve a mash temperature of 150 °F (66 °C). Hold this temperature for at least 60 minutes, then begin mashout process. Collect 7.5 gallons (28 L) of wort. Total boil time is 2 hours. Add hops and licorice root as indicated. You may want to add a yeast nutrient as well to give the yeast an extra boost to help finish fermentation.

Chill the wort, aerate, and pitch the yeast. Try to hold fermentation at around 68 °F (20 °C) but be careful that internal fermentation temperatures may be quite a bit higher than ambient temperature. Once fermentation begins to die down, add the candi syrup and chopped vanilla bean.

When your beer is ready for transferring into secondary (about 3–4 weeks), pour the liquor off the oak cubes (reserving for cocktails!) and place cubes into the vessel. Rack the beer on top of the cubes. Big stouts like this are often best with considerable age, after many months (minimum of 2 months) of aging to allow the oak and intense flavors to meld together, while the sometimes hot alcohol character of a fresh beer smooths out. Consider a January brew day for a Christmas beer release. If time does not allow for such a long aging, decrease the quantity of oak used or switch to an oak alternative with a shorter extraction time.

Abysmal Stout (Bourbon “Barrel” Aged)

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.096  FG = 1.020
IBU =  40  SRM = 66  ABV = 11.5%

Ingredients
Replace the Golden PromiseTM malt from the all-grain recipe with 6.6 lbs. (3 kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract, 2 lbs. (0.9 kg) extra light dried malt extract, and 2 lbs. (0.9 kg) Golden PromiseTM malt. The remainder of the ingredients remain the same as the all-grain version.

Step by Step
Soak the charred cubes starting on brew day in Bourbon or rye of your choosing (mid-shelf). Starting with 2 gallons (8 L) of water, bring temperature to 160 °F (71 °C). In a large grain bag, submerge the crushed Golden PromiseTM, the kiln coffee and Victory® malts into the water. Hold the mash temperature at 150 °F (66 °C) for 45 minutes, then stir in the remaining crushed grains while bringing the temperature back to 150 °F (66 °C). Hold this temperature for at least 15 minutes, then wash grains with 1.5 gallons (5.7 L) of hot water.

Top off the kettle to 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) and stir in malt extracts while off heat until fully dissolved. Return to heat and bring wort to a boil for 60 minutes. Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.

Flanders Red Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.061  FG = ~1.008
IBU =  5  SRM = 22  ABV = ~7%

Ingredients
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) Pilsner malt
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) Vienna malt
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) Best Malz Red X® malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) German Munich malt (6 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) aromatic malt
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Caramunich® II malt
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Special B malt
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) red wheat malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) amber candi syrup (0 min.)
2 AAU Hallertau hops (30 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 4% alpha acids)
1 French heavy toast oak stave soaked in red wine
Imperial Yeast G02 (Kaiser) or White Labs WLP036 (Düsseldorf Alt Ale) or SafAle K-97 yeast
Imperial Yeast F08 (Sour Batch Kidz) or White Labs WLP665 (Flemish Ale) blend
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This is a single infusion mash. Heat 3.75 gallons (14.2 L) of strike water to 169 °F (76 °C). Mash at 155 °F (68 °C) to 60 minutes before beginning mashout process. Collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of wort and bring to a boil. Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops and candi syrup as indicated.

Chill wort, aerate, and pitch the German ale yeast (don’t pitch the blend at this time). Ferment at 62 °F (17 °C) for about 10–14 days.

When final gravity is reached and beer has settled, transfer to secondary and inoculate with the yeast/bacteria blend. Give the bugs several weeks to get their funk on before dumping the wine and adding the stave to your beer. Within as little as a few months the beer will be ready to keg or bottle!

Flanders Red Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.061  FG = ~1.008
IBU =  5  SRM = 22  ABV = ~7%

Ingredients

Replace the Pilsner, Vienna, Red X®, and Munich malts in the all-grain version with 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) Pilsen dried malt extract, 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) Vienna dried malt extract, 1 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich dried malt extract, and 2 lbs. (0.9 kg) Best Malz Red X® malt. The rest of the ingredients are the same as the all-grain recipe.

Step by Step

Starting with 1.5 gallons (6 L) of water, bring temperature to 160 °F (71 °C). In a large grain bag, submerge the crushed Red X®, aromatic, and red wheat malts into the water. Hold the mash temperature at 155 °F (68 °C)  for 45 minutes, then stir in the remaining crushed grains while bringing the temperature back to 155 °F (68 °C). Hold this temperature for at least 15 minutes, then wash all the grains with 1.5 gallons (5.7 L) of hot water.

Top off the kettle to 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) and stir in malt extracts while off heat until fully dissolved. Return to heat and bring wort to a boil for 60 minutes, adding hops and candi syrup according to the ingredients list. Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.

Tips for Success:
If you haven’t saved an oak stave from a batch of wine you made, don’t fret, but you may have to start soaking it 2–3 months prior to brew day to achieve the right balance and that freshly dumped barrel taste. Place your stave in a Ziplock or vacuum seal bag and pour in about 8 oz. (235 mL) of your favorite full-bodied and tannic red wine (like a Cabernet Sauvignon). Moving it in and out of the freezer daily will help speed up the rate of extraction.

Sour beers and mixed culture fermentation are worthy of many articles and books unto themselves.  This is a very simple explanation for making a sour beer.  Though it consistently works well, the time to achieve your desired flavor profile may vary based on factors that are outside the scope of this article.

Vin Blanc IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.064  FG = 1.014
IBU = 58  SRM = 5  ABV = 6.4%

Ingredients
9 lbs. (4.1 kg) Pure Idaho Pilsner malt
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) white wheat malt
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) Vienna malt
0.33 lb. (0.15 kg) crystal malt (15 °L)
14 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 14% alpha acids)
12 AAU Hallertau Blanc hops (5 min.) (1.25 oz./35 g at 10% alpha acids)
0.75 oz. (21 g) Nelson Sauvin hops (1 min.)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Cashmere hops (1 min.)
1.25 oz. (35 g) Nelson Sauvin hops (dry hop)
0.75 oz. (21 g) Hallertau Blanc hops (dry hop)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Cashmere hops (dry hop)
1 oz. (28 g) gin-soaked American oak chips (medium toast)
Imperial Yeast A24 (Dry Hop) or Omega Yeast OLY-052 (DIPA) or LalBrew New England
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Starting on brew day, in a sealed container cover 1 oz. (28 g) of oak chips in your favorite gin. Heat 4 gallons (15.2 L) of strike water to 162 °F (72 °C). Mash all the grains at 148 °F (64 °C) for 75 minutes before beginning the mashout process. Collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of wort and bring to a boil for 60 minutes, adding hops as indicated. After flameout, give the wort a long stir to create a whirlpool and let settle for several minutes.

Chill wort to yeast-pitching temperature, aerate, then pitch the yeast. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for roughly one week, then add the dry hops. At this time, pour the gin off the oak and replace with a dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc. When the beer is ready for transfer, rack into an appropriate fermenter or keg and add the chips with the wine to the beer. Package the beer as you would a normal IPA.

Vin Blanc IPA

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.064  FG = 1.014
IBU = 58  SRM = 5  ABV = 6.4%

Ingredients
Replace the Pilsner, wheat, and Vienna malts with 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) Pilsen dried malt extract and 2 lbs. (0.91 kg) wheat dried malt extract.  The remainder of the ingredients remain the same as the all-grain recipe.

Step by Step
Starting with 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) of water, submerge the crushed grains in a muslin bag into the water. Heat the water up to 170 °F (77 °C) then remove the grains. Stir in all the malt extracts while off heat. Stir until malt extracts are fully dissolved, then bring wort to a boil. Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops according to the ingredients list. After flameout, give the wort a long stir to create a whirlpool and let settle for several minutes.

Chill wort to yeast-pitching temperature, aerate, then pitch the yeast. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) for roughly one week, then add the dry hops. At this time, pour the gin off the oak and replace with a dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc. When the beer is ready for transfer, rack into an appropriate fermenter or keg and add the chips with the wine to the beer. Package the beer as you would a normal IPA.