Aging your homebrew in an oak barrel can add more dimensions to your beer by imparting complex wood characteristics such as vanilla, cloves, coconut, or caramel, but barrels are not ideal for everyone. If you are experimenting with oak for the first time you may not want to invest the money in buying a barrel, and there are also issues of space and additional time requirements to maintain the barrel. If barrels aren’t for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t create the same depth of flavors to your beer. Instead of putting the beer in the oak, you can always put the oak in the beer. There are a number of oak alternatives available from home-brew retailers, whether you want to add oak chips, oak cubes, powder or liquid extracts.
The most common oak alternatives are oak chips and cubes, and there are many options of both – including American, French or Hungarian oak, as well as different levels of toast. American oak generally has a more aggressive oak and vanilla flavor, while French oak is more refined and adds a bit more spiciness. Hungarian falls somewhere between French and American oak. Toasting the oak brings a more caramelized, toasty flavor. Chips and cubes come in light, medium and heavy toasted levels, indicating how deep into the oak it is toasted and how much of the toasty flavors they will bring to your beer.
Both chips and cubes are generally added to secondary fermentation. Sanitize the oak by steaming or boiling it for about 15 minutes. Then add the oak (and water too, if you don’t want to waste any of the flavor) to your secondary fermenter. Do not use a sanitizer as the oak will absorb it and transfer that flavor to your beer.
Another method used to kill any potential bacteria that may be living in the wood, while also adding flavors you would get from aging your beer in used barrels, is letting the oak soak in whisky, bourbon, or other spirits for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks depending on how much of the flavor you are looking to add to our homebrew.
An advantage of oak chips is the extraction time of the flavors is shorter — one to two weeks — because of their greater surface area, while cubes will take four to six weeks. Alternatively, because cubes have less surface area, some brewers believe cubes have a “fresher” taste as flavors deep inside them that have not been lost to air contact come out over time. Both options allow you the opportunity to periodically sample your beer and then rack the beer off the oak when you feel it is just right.
Also available are oak staves or spirals, which are larger pieces of oak with a greater surface area. They are generally used for larger batches than the average homebrewer is making, so they are not as frequently used for homebrewing. They can take months before the full flavor is extracted.
Other than chips and cubes, the other common products for homebrewers are oak essence and oak powder. Oak essence is a liquid oak flavoring and, like oak powder, can be stirred into your homebrew to get a quick and easy oak characteristic prior to bottling. It takes very little essence or powder, so be cautious with your additions. While these powder and liquid options are by far the fastest way to add wood characteristics, the flavor they impart may not be as authentic.
No matter the oak alternative you use, remember that adding flavoring is easy, removing a flavor is much more difficult and would require blending another batch of beer, assuming you have one on hand.