Barrel-aged beers have become all the rage these days. Putting a big, strong beer in a barrel is becoming almost as natural as putting butter on toast. Barrel-aging imparts many flavors to the beer, depending on the kind of wood, the spirits or wine the barrel previously held, and the amount of time spent in the barrel.
I’ve been doing something a bit different at Crooked Run–using plain wood. A lot of homebrewers do this, since they don’t have enough beer to fill a barrel. A lot of wineries and distilleries also do this to add extra flavor.
My assistant brewer Wes cuts down some American white oak or cherry near his house, cuts it up, toasts it, and we then throw it directly into the keg. We’ve experimented adding oak or cherry to several different beers.
We like to use wood chips for several different reasons. First, the huge demand for used barrels from the wine and distilling industries has driven the price up, and made barrels hard to come by. Second, barrels don’t really do anything special. Wood is wood, and truthfully, using fresh wood is more effective anyways since nothing has passed through it yet. Yes, barrels look very nice and there is a romantic appeal to using them, but they are a royal pain to work with. The spirits or wine the barrel held will also add flavor, but I am not really a fan of the alcohol that barrel-aging imparts.
Most importantly, by adding wood directly to the keg, we can choose to wood age a portion of a batch of beer rather than all of it. That has allowed me to do interesting things, one of them being Cherrywood Aged Hopsail. Hopsail is our Belgian single, a pale, 98% pilsner malt Belgian session ale. We made a special keg a month ago aged on two ounces of cherry wood. I had no idea how this would turn out, having never had a cherrywood beer, but it was fantastic. It was gone in one night; everyone who tried it came back for seconds. The cherry added a strong vanilla aroma, and a mix of bright fruit and prominent wood to the taste, like chewing on a popsicle stick.
If you’re interested in using wood in some of your brews, here’s my preferred method. Take your wood chips and either toast them in the oven for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, or leave them untoasted. Some wood chips you can buy already come toasted–if so, skip this step. Take the chips, place them in a glass measuring cup, and pour boiling water over them to sterilize them. Add the chips and the water directly into an empty keg, and transfer the beer to the keg.
I find 4-6 ounces of American white oak or 1-2 ounces of cherry are the perfect amount. Adjust up or down depending on personal tastes. Two weeks in the keg is enough time for the flavor to come out.