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Home Brew Forums > Home Brewing Beer > Brew Science > Aging Beer in Oak Barrels
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Old 11-05-2010, 01:34 PM   #1
ThatGuyMike
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Default Aging Beer in Oak Barrels

I am always interested in the science behind brewing but am a novice when it comes to that field. Recently, my friend was talking to the owner of our LHBS about aging beer in oak barrels. The owner said that you can never age beer in these vessels without some kind of coating on the inside. He was saying as a homebrewer, you need to use oak chips/cubes to emulate this flavor. His reasoning was that the alcohol content of beer was not high enough to do this safely (unlike Bourbon/Scotch/Whiskey).

I know the insides of bourbon/whiskey barrels are often charred, so I'm not sure if that is the protective coating he was talking about or not. I suppose I'm just interested if anyone out there knows the science behind what he was talking about.


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Old 11-05-2010, 02:04 PM   #2
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I'm calling BS. People use barrels for beer all the time.

When using a barrel, there always is a risk of infection. If you use a barrel that was properly taken care of, there is virtually no risk. Coating the barrel would be stupid, since the reason to age in a barrel is to impart oak flavor to the beer. Brewers (home and pro) have been using old whisky and wine barrels for some time now. Each will give you different amounts of flavor.

All oak barrels are charred (toasted) on the inside. Some barrels more than others. The charring somewhat seals the wood, caramelizes sugars in the wood and helps bring out the vanilla type flavors in the oak. Barrels are only charred once when they are made.

One requirement of Bourbon, is that it is aged in new oak barrels. This is usually American Oak with a heavy toast. Since every batch of Bourbon must use new barrels, that means there is a huge surplus if you know the right sources. The Scotch industry has picked up on this and uses a lot of second hand Bourbon barrels. For instance, I know Laphroaig uses all of Maker's Mark's old barrels. Bourbon barrels will impart a very oaky and borbon/whisky flavor to the beer.

Wine barrels tend to have less toast and are usually made from the more subtle French Oak. Wine makers will usually use a barrel for up to 3 batches. That is considered the limit to be able to impart oak flavors to the wine. Used wine barrels also crop up every once and a while, but can sometimes be expensive. Older barrels may be in disrepair, or not fit for holding liquid anymore.


Finally, whisky or wine barrels are big. 55 gallons I think. You can sometimes find small barrels (there was a source here for a while, but it got too time intensive for the person to keep selling them). Remember, smaller barrels require less time. There is a much higher surface to liquid ratio the smaller the barrel gets.


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Old 11-05-2010, 02:08 PM   #3
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The shop guy is wrong. You can age in a barrel with no coating. BUT... The wood is porous and beer will evaporate thru the wood. So you will need to top off the barrel with fresh beer to keep it full. ALSO, the wood will transmit oxygen to the beer. Oxygen is small amount can give some nice sherry notes to a high gravity beer. In larger amounts it makes beer taste like cardboard. The size of the barrel has a big effect on how much oxygen you will pick up. Larger barrels pick up less per volume then small barrels. Really I don't think anything smaller then a 50-60 gallon wine / whiskey barrel would be good for long term aging. ALSO, oak has strong tannin flavors. The flavors reduce with every use. It's best to get a used wine or whiskey barrel to use with beer. A fresh new barrel will be over powering with oak flavor. ALSO, barrels are hard to properly clean and sanitize. You could easily pick up some wild yeast and bacteria that are living in the wood. This would make your beer sour.

The toasting / charring gives the oak a flavor level. There are different levels of toast.

At the homebrew level, it's Logistically much easier to use chips and cubes then a big giant barrel. But if you have the capacity to brew 60 gallons at one time. Get a barrel from you local winery / whiskey maker, and go for it.
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Old 11-05-2010, 02:16 PM   #4
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I wish I had the capacity to brew that much at a time! I'm a regular 5-gallon-batch brewer...for now at least

I really appreciate the info. My first reaction upon hearing this from my friend was "that doesn't make any sense to me," so I'm glad to hear my instinct was at least partially right. Completely understood on the oxygen being transmitted through the wood into the beer, and the wild-yeast situation. I guess he was trying to say that without a "coating" you may have problems due to what you guys mentioned. Although I still don't see how you would transfer the flavors from the oak you'd want to if there was a coating on it. Oh well. Still, if I ever happen across a 5 gallon nicely toasted oak barrel I may throw caution to the wind and give 'er a shot
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Old 11-05-2010, 02:24 PM   #5
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It is rumored that originally IPA was put in barrels to transport from England to Indian. The insides of the barrels were coated with pitch to reduce evaporation during the long voyage. So real authentic IPA would not have oak flavor.
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Old 11-14-2010, 10:29 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ThatGuyMike View Post
I wish I had the capacity to brew that much at a time! I'm a regular 5-gallon-batch brewer...for now at least

I really appreciate the info. My first reaction upon hearing this from my friend was "that doesn't make any sense to me," so I'm glad to hear my instinct was at least partially right. Completely understood on the oxygen being transmitted through the wood into the beer, and the wild-yeast situation. I guess he was trying to say that without a "coating" you may have problems due to what you guys mentioned. Although I still don't see how you would transfer the flavors from the oak you'd want to if there was a coating on it. Oh well. Still, if I ever happen across a 5 gallon nicely toasted oak barrel I may throw caution to the wind and give 'er a shot
check this out!
http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f16/5-ga...ipping-205450/
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Old 11-15-2010, 06:11 AM   #7
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You can buy small barrels here

http://www.northernbrewer.com/winema...ne-oak-barrels
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Old 11-15-2010, 03:00 PM   #8
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I bought one of Infidel's corn-whiskey barrels about this time last year and it was my first time aging in a barrel. I put three consecutive and virtually identical batches (Porters) in it. First one had nice vanilla/oak flavors. Second batch didn't have nearly as much vanilla and had more astringent, raw wood flavor. Third batch had no vanilla and even more astringent, raw wood flavor. I just dumped the last gallon of the third batch as I just couldn't take it anymore.

I don't know if my experience was typical but it seemed like a lot of money for only 1-2 uses before it was 'spent'.
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Old 11-15-2010, 06:43 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SpanishCastleAle View Post
I bought one of Infidel's corn-whiskey barrels about this time last year and it was my first time aging in a barrel. I put three consecutive and virtually identical batches (Porters) in it. First one had nice vanilla/oak flavors. Second batch didn't have nearly as much vanilla and had more astringent, raw wood flavor. Third batch had no vanilla and even more astringent, raw wood flavor. I just dumped the last gallon of the third batch as I just couldn't take it anymore.

I don't know if my experience was typical but it seemed like a lot of money for only 1-2 uses before it was 'spent'.
I also bought one of the barrels last year. I've run several beers through it, and they've all been good. You do have to increase your aging times, as the flavors do get stripped over time, but between beers I just pour in a fifth of Jack Daniels. Doesn't fill it up, but I just give the barrel a good shake and a quarter turn every day. Helps to keep the barrel wet inside and, maybe, the alcohol helps keep the critters at bay?
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Old 11-15-2010, 06:54 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by I_B_Mongo View Post
I also bought one of the barrels last year. I've run several beers through it, and they've all been good. You do have to increase your aging times, as the flavors do get stripped over time, but between beers I just pour in a fifth of Jack Daniels. Doesn't fill it up, but I just give the barrel a good shake and a quarter turn every day. Helps to keep the barrel wet inside and, maybe, the alcohol helps keep the critters at bay?
Yea, I did all that too (I even used some single-malt scotch once). The whisky flavor was there and was fine. The oak flavor contributed to the beer just seemed to get more and more like raw wood.


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