One technique for creating sought-after and unique beers is aging the beer on oak. It creates complex, deep flavours that you really can’t get elsewhere and really can take the right beer to the next level. However, there are some things to consider before you try it.
Not all beers are good for oak-aging. Generally, when aging beer on oak, we want to choose something that will work with the oak character. Something on the darker side will work and something that doesn’t rely on fresh flavours. Since the beer will sit on the oak for a while, your New England IPA will likely not fare well. But of course, it’s your beer and one of the best things about home brewing is getting to experiment and take risks! So go ahead and age that IPA on some oak, see how it turns out. Maybe you’ll love it!
Next you have to choose how to actually age the beer on the oak. Often, we immediately want to run out and grab a barrel but there are some serious considerations before doing that: Barrels can be very expensive. Most barrels are quite large. There are significant cleaning/sanitizing challenges. You may need specialized equipment to get the finished beer out of the barrel.
After considering the challenges of a barrel, it may be more worth your time and money to go with one of the alternative options: chips, cubes, spirals, sticks, powder/essence. All of these options are significantly less expensive and easier to work with than a barrel. The most accessible of these options are probably chips or cubes.
Another couple of things to consider are the type of wood used and the toast level of said wood. French and American Oak are the easiest to get. French will impart a lighter oak flavour and American will be more bold. Both French and American oak come in different toast levels: light (will impart light oak, light coconut, vanilla and fruit flavours), medium (will impart moderate oak, vanilla, caramel and fruit flavours) and heavy (will impart bolder oak, coffee, roasty flavours).
Once you’ve decided on what type of wood to use, how do you use them?
There are a few options as far as adding the wood to your beer. You could boil them and then add the chips or cubes directly to your fermented beer or you could boil the wood for fifteen minutes and then add the liquid in small amounts at a time and taste the beer as you do this. There is also the option of soaking the wood in your preferred spirit (use a mason jar), thus replicating aging in a used barrel. Soak the wood in rum, whiskey, sherry, gin, brandy, or, while not a spirit, wine. Soak the wood in the liquid for two weeks. If you do decide to use wine, you’ll want to boil the wood to sanitize it and make sure your jar is clean and sanitized. Again, you could add the wood directly to the fermented beer or you could add small amounts and taste it as you go.
If you are using the liquid drawn off of the wood, you could package the beer as is, but if you’re adding the wood directly to the fermented beer, you’ll need to taste the beer periodically until it has achieved your desired level of oakiness. This could take a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Once the beer is to your liking, package it as you normally would and enjoy.
Here are some fun ideas that you could try with oak:
Soak some lightly toasted French oak in tequila and add it to a gose.
Soak some heavily toasted American oak in bourbon and add it to a barley wine or imperial stout.
Brew up a Belgian dark strong and add some French medium-toast oak to the fermenter.
Soak some lightly toasted French oak in your favourite wine and add it to a saison.
It would even be fun to split a single batch into two fermenters and age one with oak and one without. Or soak the oak in two different spirits, add them to the separate fermenters and then compare!
There are lots you can do with adding wood (and spirits) to your beer. As with all experimentation, you will be more successful with a light hand. You can always add more, but you can’t take it out once it’s in there.
As always, if you have any questions or ideas for future Mash Out! columns, you can send me an email about it!