What you need to know about adding oak to beer
Oak is commonly used in winemaking, but lately there is interest in putting the oak in beer. Oak can give your beer different flavors from vanilla to whiskey depending on the type of oak used.
Types of oak for your beer
There are many different types of oak. Oak usually comes in three varieties, American, Hungarian, and French. The American oak gives the strongest oak flavor, while French oak gives subtler notes with other sweeter flavors like vanilla. Hungarian oak is in the middle between these two extremes.
Each of these oak varieties can also be toasted to different levels (usually light, medium, or heavy), but I’ve also seen medium-heavy and other combinations of toasting classifications. The darker the oak is, the heavier the oak is toasted. Toasting brings out some of these flavors and changes other flavors. For example, heavy toasting will give more carbonized or caramelized flavors.
Other than the origin and toasting of the oak, the oak also varies on the shape and form of the oak. You do not necessarily need to use a barrel, since your beer will not care where it gets the oak flavor. Each form of oak does have it’s advantages and trade-offs.
The most common oak additive sold is oak chips. These chips look like wood shavings. They have the most surface area, so they will deliver oak flavor to your beer very quickly. This can be an advantage, or a disadvantage depending on your goals. The other problem with oak chips is they are very messy. You best bet is to use a sterilized bag with these, otherwise you’ll need to find a way to separate the chips from your beer. And don’t make the mistake I did and assume the garbage disposal can chop them into a fine pulp. It can’t.
Cubes are also common. The wood cubes have less surface area than the wood chips, so the oak flavor is delivered slightly slower. The advantage of cubes is the cubes are much easier to separate from your beer.
Sprials or staves are becomming more common, but not all homebrew stores have them. Oak spirals are a mix between chips and cubes. The spiral has a large surface area so they quickly provide flavor like wood chips, but they are even easier than cubes to use. There is only one stick you add and remove from your beer. The disadvatage is the spirals are much more expensive than the chips or cubes. You can reuse the sprirals, but they lose their flavor quicker than barrels.
Barrels are a mixed bag. The barrels provide the most surface area, but they can be difficult to work with. Barrels can leak, contain bacteria, and are difficult to maintain. Barrels are also expensive. You can however get the most reuse from barrels. Barrels also allow some oxidation, which is usually a bad thing, but in this case it is the flavor you’d looking for.
Used barrels can provide unique flavors. A used whiskey or sherry barrel can impart whiskey flavors to your beer. You do need to be careful with used barrels. A whiskey barrel usually isn’t a problem, but wine barrels must be sanitized before you use it. When you pick a used barrel, make sure it originally housed a flavor you want in your beer.
Ways to add the oak to your beer
You could add your oak to the primary, but I add my oak to the secondary because it’s easier to monitor the oak flavors after the beer has already fermented. You need to taste your beer at different intervals (usually every few weeks) to make sure the oak flavor is where you want it.
There are a few ways to add the oak flavor to your beer. You can add the oak directly to the beer, make an “oak tea”, or infuse the oak in an alcohol. Adding oak directly to the beer is the simplest way, and I’ve had good results doing this.
Another way is to make an oak tea. Boil the oak chips covered in an inch of water. Add a bit of the water to your beer and taste it. Continue to add the oak tea until you reach the flavor you’re looking for.
If you are looking to add a bourbon or whiskey flavor, infuse your oak chips in the alcohol of choice for a week. Again add a bit of the alcohol to your beer until you reach the flavor you’re looking for.
The advantage of the second two techniques is you can taste your beer as you add the oak flavor. The first technique requires you to take samples as you go, but it is good for beers which require aging over time such as a barley wine. Allowing your beer to slowly soak in the oak flavor can give it more complex flavors. Beers with shorter aging times, like the IPA, would be better off with the second two techniques.
More Oak Tips
To prepare the oak, do not soak the oak in sanitizer solution. This will just transfer the sanitizer flavor to your beer. Your best bet is to steam the oak chips, cubes, or spirals. Oak barrels require something like Barrel-Kleen, sodium sulfite, or campden tablets.
If you decide you want to use a barrel, make sure it’s a whiskey or sherry barrel. The flavors in your barrel will be in your beer. You don’t want a wine flavor in your beer, so don’t use a wine barrel. (If you’re not sure, pour a bit of a strong red wine in your beer and see what you think).
Personally I recommend you go the cube or spiral route. These have worked the best for me. Barrels are difficult to maintain. Remember the beer doesn’t care where it gets the oak flavor, so it does not matter if you add your beer to the oak (barrel), or if you add your oak to the beer.
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Credits and Links
I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!