Finding a barrel in which to age your beer can be a bit of a challenge, and if you do happen to come across a barrel, there’s the inconvenient fact that barrels are 31 gallons. Those of us used to brewing 5- or 10-gallon batches will be hard-pressed to fill that 31-gallon barrel.
Fortunately, you don’t need to take up cooperage to give your beer that lovely oaky flavor you find in your favorite aged stouts. Manufacturers produce a wide range of products that are just the thing for homebrewers looking to infuse their brews with barrel character.
Types of Oak Products
Some companies do produce small barrels suitable for homebrewers. Expect to pay $200 or more for new barrels, or slightly less for used ones. But unless you expect barrel-aging to play a major role in your home brewery, cubes, chips, or spirals may be a better choice.
Oak cubes are small (about 0.5 inch, or 1.25 cm, square) wooden cubes that you add to a secondary fermentor such as a carboy. They can remain in contact with the beer for months or even years, depending upon the extraction level you’re looking for.
Oak chips look a bit like coarse mulch. The recommended contact time is quite a bit lower than that for cubes, thanks to the substantial surface area. Because the toasting process affects much more of a chip’s area than an equivalent mass of cubes, chips are best used with a light hand.
Oak Spirals are helical pieces of oak whose shape offers more contact area between the oak and the beer. Spirals can be left in aging beer for long periods of time. Some companies also produce staves, which are similar to spirals but with less surface area.
Each of these products is available from various origins and in various toast levels.
Oak products are usually labeled as having American, French, or Hungarian provenance. The differences are complex and depend as much on processing as on the type of oak itself. But speaking broadly, French oak is frequently described as sweet, fruity, spicy, or jammy. American oak can be campfire-like, coffee-esque, or like cooked fruit; and_ Hungarian oak_ offers up vanilla, black pepper, and chocolate notes.
Further complicating the issue is the level of toast to which the oak is subjected. Lightly toasted oak retains woody tannins and notes of coconut, while heavily toasted oak can bring in butterscotch, vanilla, and smoky overtones. Some oaks are even untoasted, but be careful: Untoasted oak gives up its character quickly!
Finally, soaking your oak product in the spirit of your choice introduces the character of that liqueur into your beer. Bourbon is perhaps the most popular, but rum, Scotch, and even tequila have all found their way into beer. Unlike commercial brewers, homebrewers can legally add distilled spirits to beer. So don’t be afraid to dump in the soaking liquid, too!