Get Your Wood On: Oaking Your Homebrew Made Easy

BYOB by | Mar 2008 | Issue #14
Illustration by Scott Murry

I think an affinity for timber must run in my family. There have been lumberjacks, shipwrights, mountaineers and even a professor of forestry. On my shelf is Gramp’s thesis “Present and Potential Markets for Connecticut Grown Timber.” It’s no surprise that wood wound up in my beer!

The oft-told legend of India Pale Ale fills the mind with images of sloshing oak barrels journeying from the clammy shores of England to the blistering barracks of the Raj. Ignoring the debate over whether they served the beer at full strength or diluted, we can be certain of one thing: Brewers went to great lengths to prevent wood and beer from interacting. Special blends of pitch sealed the wood away from the precious beer.

The general opinion around wood’s use in brewing has evolved thanks to the discovery of a fundamental truth: Oaked beers taste great! The pros use real wine and whiskey barrels. After all, what’s 50–60 gallons of wort when you brew 250 plus at a shot? Dedicated homebrewers can band together and maintain a used barrel acquired from a distillery, but for most this is not a feasible option.

Fortunately for us brewers, the same is true for amateur winemakers. In response, vendors have developed a number of “oak alternatives.” They may not provide the full barrel experience, but they get us close. The most common, oak chips, are fine shreds of toasted oak. With large exposed surface areas, tannins, vanillin and wood sugars rush into the beer. Daily monitoring and quick transferring of the chips produces a smooth oak character without overwhelming astringency. My choosiest choice though goes to the beans/nuggets of the world. The larger cubes of stave wood take longer, but their more complex and complete flavor profile is well worth the wait. Newer market items, targeted to vintners with exhausted barrels, include spirals and links. Some folks swear by BBQ chips produced from Jack Daniels barrels. A do-it-yourself approach involves using untreated oak chair legs, whittled to fit in a carboy mouth and torched to a char with propane! Just plug it into your secondary and go. One last item, and I swear that if you use it, Saint Arnold will infect your next thousand batches, is oak powder. Nasty stuff, enough said.

A troika of countries supply the selection of oak found in the homebrew shops and each variety infuses different characters into your beer. American oak slaps your senses with pepper, toasted biscuits and an impressively intense tannic quality that requires vigilance to avoid ruining the beer. Old world Hungarian oak perfumes the liquor with vanilla, black pepper and chocolate. Most desired by winemakers is the wood from France. Cinnamon and sandalwood mingle with light smoky tones over a longer period of aging. For my brewing experiments, I prefer the less harsh and more aromatic French oak.

To prepare your oak (chips/beans), give it a drunken soak. Bourbon, Scotch, rum, vodka, brandy all make excellent bathwater for your beans. Rinse the beans under cold water to knock off the dust, and then submerge the oak in your spirit of choice. Let them sit for at least two weeks or longer in a tightly sealed vessel. I keep jars filled with beans that have soaked for years. The soak does a few things: It partially sanitizes, adds additional flavor, and, most importantly, softens the tannic blow of fresh, unused oak. Brewers inevitably employ previously-used barrels for their softer wood characters. Concerned about sanitation? Employing a pressure cooker to autoclave the oak will kill most creepy crawlies. That is overkill in my book, as I have never lost a batch to funk from the wood.

Using the oak is a breeze. Weigh your oak and add it to the secondary as you rack from the primary. Do not add the soaking spirits unless you want to carry over extra smoky flavors and puckering tannins to your beer. The choicest aspects of the wood are best coaxed out under cold crashed conditions (35-50° F) over a period of a month. The slowed absorption allows the brewer more time to react and fine-tune the final profile achieved. With oak alternatives, I believe extended aging is contraindicated. Periods longer than six weeks require additional cellar time for tannin linking and settling. If cold-crashing is not an option, check your beer twice weekly after the second week on the oak and transfer to a keg or another vessel when ready.

The Recipes:
Most commonly, brewers age stronger, darker beers on wood. The combination of tannin, wood aromas and trace spirits naturally sings. What about other styles though? I’d follow two of my favorite paler wood brews. For a non-spirit application, look to the Chardonnay-infused oak in the American Wild Ale “Tempting Fate” from BeerAdvocate November 2007.

Inspired by the IPA legend, the notion of Ballatine’s IPA and a taste of the now retired Woodstock IPA of Portland Brewing, I began assembling my own Oaked IPA recipe. Knowing that the oak would be adding astringent tannins, the recipe compensates by adding crystal malt and honey malt. The higher mash temperature results in extra dextrinous wort and a higher residual final gravity. Of course, you got to have the American hops! Warrior provides the backbone; Chinook the bite; and the rest, flavor and aroma. The oak treatment occurs in the secondary with oaks beans soaked in Bourbon for at least two weeks. If you can manage, follow the cold aging steps for a silkier oak character.

Out here in California, Allagash Curieux is a rare and dear treat. The complex flavor of the Bourbon barrel and big-bodied Tripel is just too tempting not to have more often, so Kentucky Gulch Tripel was born. As I write this column, a batch is brewing. Looking forward, in two weeks the beer will meet French oak beans that have been Bourbon-soaked for four years. After four weeks in the secondary, the beer will hit the keg and be force-carbonated to 3.5 volumes. The cinnamon and sandalwood notes accentuate the spicy phenols from the yeast. The multiple strains of yeast increase this interplay for a greater complexity.

For 5.5 gallons at 1.078, 66 IBUs, 8 SRM, 8.8% ABV
Boil for 60 minutes.

Malt / Extract
15.5 lb. Pale Ale (Malt Domestic/Marris Otter or a blend) or
10.5 lb. Pale LME/8.5 lbs Pale DME
0.5 lb. Crystal 40L
0.5 lb. Crystal 8L (Belgian Caramel Pils)
0.25 lb. Aromatic malt
0.25 lb. Honey malt

Saccharification Rest: 153˚F (5 gallons) for 60 minutes.

0.5 oz Cascade | 6.5% AA | first wort hopped
0.55 oz Warrior | 17% AA | 60 minutes
0.25 oz Chinook | 15.9% AA | 60 minutes
0.5 oz Centennial | 8% AA | 15 minutes
0.5 oz Amarillo | 9.4% AA | 15 minutes
1.0 oz Cascade | 6.5% AA | 0 minutes
1.0 oz Cascade | 6.5% AA | dry hop

Wyeast 1056 | WLP001 | US-05

2 oz French oak beans (soaked in bourbon for 2 weeks minimum) added in secondary for 2–4 weeks.


For 5.5 gallons at 1.088, 16 IBUs, 5 SRM, 10% ABV
Boil for 90 minutes.

14.0 lb. Belgian Pilsner malt
0.5 lb. German wheat malt
0.25 lb. Aromatic malt
0.25 lb. Crystal 8L (Caramel Pils)
1.5 lb. Beet sugar

Protein Rest: 124˚F (4.5 gallons) for 30 minutes.
Sacchrification Rest: 150˚F for 60 minutes.

0.65 oz. Spalter Select | 6.5% AA | 60 minutes
0.75 oz. Tettnang | 2.5% AA | 15 minutes
0.5 oz. Saaz | 3.8% AA | 5 minutes

Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity (0.5 gallon starter)

2 oz French oak beans (soaked in bourbon for 2 weeks minimum) added in secondary for 2–4 weeks.