Aging Beer with Wood

Green Flash showing off Barrel Program

I believe most homebrewers and craft beer drinkers are aware of the concept of aging beer on wood.   We’ve all seen commercial breweries proudly display their beer soaking the goodness in various wooden spirit barrels; usually whiskey, but sometimes we’ll see other spirits like wine, rum, or tequila.   

Unfortunately for many of us homebrewers, we don’t have the ability to brew enough volume of beer and store in a full barrel (though it’s not difficult to find smaller barrels from various online resources).   That’s another benefit with belonging to a homebrew club (which if you haven’t noticed, I’m definitely in favor in joining one!). Many clubs will band together for a barrel-fill event.  If your club hasn’t done one of these, I’d highly recommend it.  It’s a great way to have club members collaborate together, work on recipe formulation, and have everyone brew the same recipe on their individual systems.  Usually after fermentation, everyone will bring their beer to fill the barrel (and one lucky member would need to store, monitor, and occasionally top-off the barrel).   Once it hits the desired flavor profile, the resulting beer is divided evenly to those that participated, or possibly served at a club event or beer festival.

Ballast Point Barrels

It really helps if your brewery also has a spirits brand

Okay, that sounds awesome, but what about us individually?  Luckily various types of woods are readily available at your local or online homebrew shop.   These can mimic the same qualities you may achieve by extended aging in a real barrel.  Think about the wood as just another ingredient in your recipe formulation.   Determine what is your goal with the finished beer; the specific flavor and complexities you are trying to accomplish.   Once you know your target, you can work backwards in selecting the various options you have available.  Here is a very brief outline of some of the qualities to keep in mind:

Types of woods
Oak is by far the most commonly used type of wood available to homebrewers, as well as the standard type used in making barrels. Hungarian, French, and American Oak are most likely what you’ll find at a homebrew store.  French has the most subtle flavor of the trio, American the most assertive (‘Murica!), and Hungarian falls in between.  Of course there are many types of wood outside oak, which we’ll cover a bit more below.

Toast levels
Most wood available to homebrewers come in four different toast levels: light, medium, medium plus, and heavy.  As you can likely imagine, each level brings forth its own flavors and intensities.  The characteristics range from a subtle vanilla to spicy clove.

Wood form

 

Oak Chips for beer


 Oak Chips are by far the most common form of oak marketed towards homebrewers, closely followed by wood cubes.  Wood chips have more surface area compared to cubes, and are often toasted on both sides.   This increase of surface area simply means more beer is in contact, thus reducing the time needed to age on the oak.   .5 – 1 oz per 5 gallons of beer is a fairly standard ratio.  Over-oaking can occur quickly with chips, which will lead to excessive tannin extraction, so it is important to taste-test every couple of days.   I generally don’t recommend chips, as the flavors are fairly 1-dimensional, and it is too easy to overdo.

Oak Spirals and Barrel

  Occasionally you can source spirals, staves, blocks, even a powdered essence (I’ve never known a brewer to use the powder, and I would personally avoid it just because of some weird personal bias against it).  These types are generally less common and harder to source, so I won’t bother going into those details.  

Oak Cubes

Oak cubes are only toasted on one side, and have a much broader flavor spectrum when compared to chips.   Contact with the beer should be at least a couple of months to extract the depth of flavors (I’ve left them in contact for well over 6 months).   This is my favorite form to use, as it’s fairly hands off, and the risk of extracting too many tannins is reduced.  Use 1 – 2 oz per 5 gallons, and forget about it for a while!

Spirits

Who doesn’t enjoy a bourbon barrel stout or a red wine aged imperial brown ale?   We can mimic these liquor barrels by pre-soaking the wood in the spirit of your choice.  Without going into too much detail, as this subject alone can fill an encyclopedia with the endless possibilities of liquor available.  At the most fundamental level the exact type, brand, and amount of the spirit will have a huge impact in your finished beer.  Obviously look for flavors in the spirit that will compliment your beer – Do you want a sweet, heavy vanilla note from Maker’s Mark bourbon, or a smoky, intense peatiness from Laphroaig scotch?  I generally start the soaking process on brew day, and let it marinate for about 2-3 weeks before adding it to the fermented wort.   I’ve used amounts varying from .5 cup to 2 cups of liquor in a 5 gallon batch. Taste the liquor beforehand, does it have flavors you find positive or too much astringency?  Sometimes I’ll add just a portion of the liquor that was soaking the wood, the wood alone, or toss everything in together!   Find the balance you want from anywhere between subtle and in-your-face.

Wood Aging – 9 Ways

My homebrew club recently did an experiment in which we divided 10 gallons of beer into 9 different types of wood, to learn how each type may contribute unique flavors, mouthfeel, etc.  We then blindly sampled each one at a time, starting with the control batch that was not aged on any wood (that’s 10 total samples!).  We were surprised at the range, and below you can find our notes.  I’ll keep the notes brief, for a simple overview.

 

Honey Comb Oak from Black Swan

Wood was provided by Black Swan Barrels http://www.blackswanbarrels.com/. 1” honeycomb pieces (1” per gallon of beer), and  were left to age for 5 weeks of contact time. The honeycomb format increases surface area, which maximizes extraction rates. 

Control Beer – Robust Porter

Club description: Neutral, clean, roasty, slightly oxidized.

Wood Species Available – Sample A: Soft Maple

Vendor description: Yellow cake, light smoke, banana, nut, toasted bread, hint of orange spice

Club description: nutty, vanilla, some tannins, spice

Wood Species Available – Sample B: White Oak

Vendor description: Vanilla, toasted coconut, cinnamon, pepper, sweet baked bread, caramel

Club description: smokier than sample A, herbal, piney, low vanilla

Wood Species Available – Sample C: Hard Maple

Vendor description: Maple candy, light spice-nutmeg, cinnamon, syrup, bread/bakery, cream hint of cocoa

Club description: black currant, cherry, low cinnamon, wintergreen

Wood Species Available – Sample D: Sassafras

Vendor description: Vanilla, Sage/Spice, Root Beer, Mint

Club description: spicy, woody nose, root beer, wintergreen, low floral

Wood Species Available – Sample E: Red Oak

Vendor description: Red berries, toasted marshmallow, light grass, baking bread, butterscotch

Club description: light grassy, nutty, lots of smoke, moderate vanilla

Wood Species Available – Sample F: Cherry

Vendor description: Butter brickle, ripe cherry, fresh grass, meringue, light fried bread/Belgian waffle

Club description: cherry, berry, fruity, sweet cherries, tannic

Wood Species Available – Sample G: Yellow Birch

Vendor description: Toffee, butterscotch, honey croissant, light lemon, tropical fruit

Club description: ashy, popsicle stick, butterscotch, wood (like balsa wood)

Wood Species Available – Sample H: Hickory

Vendor description: Honey, BBQ, hickory smoked bacon, apple sauce, cocoa coconut

Club description: cola, bandaid, burnt smoke, vanilla, apple,

Wood Species Available – Sample I: White Ash

Vendor description: Campfire, marshmallow, light grass, rising bread dough, light sweetness (adds different mouth-feel dimension)

Club description: less assertive, low cherry coke

Final Notes

If we do this experiment again, we will likely choose a lighter beer style (such as a blonde ale).  While the wood may not enhance a lighter style for the better, it would provide a cleaner slate to see how the characteristics of each wood imparts flavor. 

Coincidently, at the same time we were experimenting with wood aging, Brewers Publications announced the availability of their latest book, Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide.  This would be a great resource for anyone wanting to learn much more about wood aging and some of the science behind what is occurring in the entire process.

On your next brew day, consider if aging on wood (or split half of it with the intended purpose) may complement your recipe.  Don’t limit yourself to just the stereotypical dark strong beer styles, bring your creativity forward and see what unique results you can produce!

 

 

 

 Caleb Schickedanz has been a homebrewer for over six years, and president of the Kansas City Bier Meisters the past two years. He resides near Kansas City, KS, and has actively been involved in the homebrewing and beer community in the area.  He holds a National rank in the BJCP, and hopefully soon will be a certified mead judge. Caleb's brew system includes both a typical three-tier gravity setup, as well as an electric brew-in-a-bag system.  He enjoys brewing (and drinking) almost all beer styles when he is not busy working as an IT manager.

 

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Caleb Schickedanz
Caleb Schickedanz

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