Oak Alternatives & Oaking Methods

The use of oak and other woods in flavoring beer has enjoyed a resurgence recently among homebrewers and some craft breweries. Oak is commonly used in winemaking, and was once widely used to barrel beer. If a whole barrel is not an option for you, there are other ways of getting oak into your homebrew.

Oak Chips – These are the most popular form used in homebrewing. Typically the chips are sold in a bag and look like wood shavings. The small chips have a large surface area that delivers the oak flavor to the beer quickly. The only disadvantage is that the small chips can be hard to separate from the finished beer, so you should use a bag with them.

Oak Cubes – Packages of cubes are also widely available from homebrewing supply shops. They work similarly to chips but take longer to impart their flavor as they have much less surface area than oak chips. However the advantage of cubes is that they can easily be separated from the beer when you are finished aging.

Spirals – Though less common than cubes or chips, spiral-cut oak is a product that offers a large surface area similar to chips, but are still easy to remove like cubes. Therefore they still impart flavor to the beer quickly but allow for easy removal. Their only disadvantage is that they are more expensive than chips or cubes.

Oak Essence and Oak Powder – Oak essence (such as Sinatin 17) is a liquid flavor extract that can be stirred in at bottling time to taste. Oak powder is similar – essentially it is a powdered oak flavor stirred into the beer. Both work instantly and can be added in small amounts to taste.

Oak Flavoring Methods

Three major methods are available to homebrewers when using oak:

Oak Aging – The simplest method, which involves adding the oak chips/spirals/cubes after fermentation while aging the beer. Also this is the method used with barrels, since you store the beer in the oak barrel. I recommend sanitizing the chips/spirals/cubes first by steaming them for 15 minutes to reduce the risk of infection (don’t use sanitizing solution as it is absorbed by the chips). Most homebrewers add their oak shortly after fermentation completes and before bottling (i.e. in the secondary) and leave the oak in there until they achieve the desired taste, sampling every day or two. Some homebrewers with keg systems also add the oak chips/cubes in the keg itself, containing it in a bag so it will not block the keg’s dip tube. Oak aging can take anywhere from a few days to several months depending on the oak used and desired flavor level.

Oak Tea – You can boil the oak to make an oak tea. Simply drop your chips/spirals/cubes in enough water to cover them fully and bring it to a boil for 10–15 minutes. Once the tea is complete you can add it a bit at a time to the finished beer until you achieve the overall beer flavor you desire. Making a tea is much faster than aging with oak, and also lets you more closely control the flavor.

Liquor Tea – If you are looking to add bourbon, whiskey, or your favorite liquor flavor to the beer you can make a tea using liquor instead. In this case you add the chips/cubes/spirals to a small amount of your favorite liquor (possibly diluted a bit with water) and let it sit for a week. Then mix the liquor in with your beer in small amounts until you achieve the desired overall flavor. Alternatively, you can add just the soaked chips/cubes/spirals to your beer. Obviously moderation is important here as the liquor can easily overpower the flavor of the beer or wood chips.

Issue: May-June 2015