Emulating Bourbon Barrel Aging

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If you love barrel aged beer like I do, you have probably thought about brewing a big beer and adding those wonderful barrel flavors to your beer. Aging your beer on wood will add some complexity to your beer and introduce some great new flavors.
Aging in a barrel is the most recognized way to get these flavors. Large wood barrels that were used in the distilling industry are very popular for re-use and aging beer. If you are member of a homebrew club or have a big brew capacity, you could get one of these barrels and age a beer in it, just like the pros. I found they are now available in all sizes from 5-80 gallons. But, it’s still an investment and they have a limited lifetime. The more times they are used, the less flavor you will instill in your beer and the higher chance the barrel will at some point get infected.
This is a 5 gallon bourbon barrel we picked up for about $100. We have already done a RIS and a Wee Heavy in it. Now, we have a barley wine aging in it.

There are a number of wood types and forms you can add with whiskey to get the barrel aged (BA) flavor that don’t require a big investment of cash or space. Basically, you want to add the wood and the whisky flavors to your beer without the barrel.
You can introduce the wood flavors by using different types of charred wood media (described in more detail below) that have been soaked in bourbon whiskey. Then, add the mixture to your beer, in the secondary fermenter. This will emulate the flavors of bourbon barrel aging.
Things that must be considered when aging your beer with wood:
· Type of wood and media
· Level of toasting
· Bourbon Soaking
· Length of time you want to/need to wait
Type of wood
The most popular types of wood used are French and American white oak.
French oak is denser and more mildly flavored. It is said to have sweet, spicy, and fruity flavors, like custard, butterscotch, or milk chocolate.
American oak has an aromatic sweetness along with a vanilla component. It can have roasted, dried fruit, and chocolate notes. American oak is the most popular for aging beer.
Wood media options
Okay, now that you have an idea of what wood type and you might want there are different forms of media you can get these wood chips or chunks. All of these forms will come in different levels of toasting. The toasting levels will affect the flavor of the beer. Toasting levels are discussed in greater detail below.
· Wood chips
· Wood cubes
· Wood spirals
· Wood staves
Wood chips
Wood chips are very thin flakes of wood, similar to what you may see in garden mulch. Since they are thin, and have a high surface area in contact with the beer, you will probably only need to age homebrew on wood chips for a couple weeks. Some say that wood chips don’t give beer the best wood flavor quality, but if you don’t have months to give to the aging process, chips will speed you the wood flavoring process.

Wood cubes
Cubes are similar to wood chips, except they are much thicker. Such cubes have different levels of toast across the rough surface of the wood. There is more charring at the surface level than in the grooves and grain of the wood. These levels of toasts can give more complex wood-aged character to your beer. This is one step closer to barreling beer, compared to wood chips. This option can take a month or longer. Use 1-2 oz of cubes for 5 gallons.

Wood spirals
A wood spiral is just what it sounds like. It looks like thick screw, about 8 inches long. Spirals have more surface area than cubes, with more variation in thickness and levels of toast. They are also great for adding more complex wood-aged qualities. This option can take six weeks or much longer. Use 1- 2 sticks per 5 gallons.

A stave is piece of wood from a used barrel. Since the stave has more uncharred wood in contact with the beer, it is not quite the same as a fully charred barrel. You can use the whole stave or chop it up into smaller pieces to fit into your fermenter. The more you chop it up, the more wood you will expose and the faster you instill wood flavor. This option can take a month to a year depending on the flavor you are looking to get.

Level of toasting
Once you have an idea of what kind of wood chips or chunks you want use, there are many options for the charring or toasting level of the wood media. Typically, the wood in barrels is “toasted or charred”, when the barrel is being assembled. This involves burning the wood to a specific level. How light or dark the wood is toasted will affect the character and flavor of the whiskey or beer. This will also apply to the wood media you will choose to use. You will need to choose the toasting level of the chips, cubes, or spirals to match the character you are trying to achieve.
· A light toast will give more fresh wood character with hints of fruit and coconut.
· A medium toast will have more vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel notes.
· A heavy toast will bring out more spicy and smoky wood character.
· Some oaks are even untoasted. Untoasted oak gives a big woody character very quickly!
The images below are wood chips that show light, medium and heavy toasted chips. Chips are also available now presoaked in whiskey. Use 1-2 oz for a 5 gallon batch.




You will be soaking the wood in whiskey. This is all the sanitizing you should need. The high percentage of alcohol will kill anything that may be living in the wood. If we were just oaking the beer, you would want to steam the wood to sanitize it.
Soaking your oak in bourbon is how you will introduce the character into your beer. Bourbon is the most popular liquor to add to your wood. But rum, Scotch, and tequila are picking up in popularity, too.

Soak your wood for two weeks in a few ounces of bourbon or whiskey in a jar. You may need more to cover larger pieces, like cut up staves. You don’t need an expensive bottle of bourbon. A cheaper variety will work fine. You are not drinking the bourbon. You are just adding the flavor of the bourbon. But if you have a favorite, go ahead and use it. My first attempt used a 750ml with most going into the fermenter. This was total overkill! It is very easy to overdo bourbons and whiskeys. So, less is more. Dump the whiskey before adding the oak to your beer.
Unlike commercial brewers, homebrewers can legally add whiskey to beer. If the flavor is not pronounced after a few weeks or a month of being on the oak, you can add a little more if you like. You can always add it, but you can’t take it out.
Aging – The length of time you want to/need to wait
Okay, this is the hard part. Waiting….
Much of this waiting will depend on the wood media you used and the amount of wood character you want. Chips are the fastest, but lack some of the character the cubes, spirals and staves. If you want more oak flavor, you need to let it sit longer. If I use chips, I taste it after a couple weeks. If I used cubes or spirals, I usually sample it once a month. I’ll sample it, until I get the right flavor balance I want. You can always add more bourbon to your fermenter, if you want more bourbon flavor.
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I've used the spirals before on an Imperial Stout. I put ~1.5 spiral sticks (steamed first) in a 5G corny keg for about 3 weeks and it was way too oaky. The point of my reply is to stress the sampling. And based on my experience with spirals, I'd say sample at least one per week if possible.
I would agree. Sampling is your best friend, especially the first few weeks. You want to make sure you don't "over oak" your beer. You only need a small taste (1/2 to 1 ounce).
I've brewed mostly with wood spirals and 1-2 sticks for 5 gallons for six weeks would result in an undrinkable beer. I usually end up breaking the sticks in half or quarters. To reiterate what the others have already said, sampling and flexibility are the key points to oaking.
- Jeff
Thanks for the info, Ted. I have a new 5G white oak barrel ordered with a medium toasted interior. I plan a light SRM Belgian Lambic Sour to ferment in a stainless tank, then transfer to barrel to get a slight oak finish. My question involves preparing a new barrel for the beer. Can I condition the barrel by filling with mostly water and maybe a quart of inexpensive bourbon to hydrate the wood? Or maybe red table wine with a smaller amount of water to stretch the volume?
I know to sample beer in the barrel frequently as over-oaking seems likely with a new barrel. From the barrel should I transfer to keg and let condition a few months to mature/condition knowing the beer will be well over oaked to stay in the barrel several months? I'll stick to brett based beers in this barrel following the use of the 3278 yeast. Any advice is helpful. Thanks!
"Dump the whiskey before adding the oak to your beer." Are you saying you do not add the liquor that has been soaking in the oak medium to the beer, but only add the lightly drained oak medium?
The simple way is skip the wood and just add some Jack Daniels to your beer. 200ml into a 20litre keg to start works great and you don't have to wait. If it isn't enough "barrel aging" add more.
You can just add the bourbon. That works, too. The chips will just add more barrel/woody flavor.
This is a great start, but, at the risk of an article that's too long, there should be some discussion about options for secondary aging. I say this because a corny keg is a fantastic way to bulk age stouts. You can purge O2 from the head space, you can easily open it to add...oak, bourbon, vanilla, cocoa nibs, etc. Finally, since monitoring your beer with samples is critical for success, you can easily hook up a picnic tap and pour a sample to see how it's coming along.
@Morrey T - Provider usually gives you some instructions. I assume you will need to fill and hydrate the barrel to swell it, so it doesn't leak. If you want to sanitize it, fill and soaking with >180°f water or fill with ozonated water. We did that the first time. Now, we add a new beer to our whiskey barrel right after we drain it. We will add bourbon and roll it around to a while "sanitize it".
Like Hwk-I-St8 said, using stainless steel kegs is a great way to age your beer outside of the barrel! It is a much more controlled environment, and yes it makes it easy to taste it off of a picnic tap (major plus in my book).
@Mike D - You can dump the bourbon or add it. I know people use both methods. Partly depends on how much bourbon flavor you want. You can always add, but you can't take it away.
@Hwk-I-St8 - Totally agree! CO2 purged and sealed up with special additions! I have used smaller kegs and split a batch. Added vanilla to one and spices to another. It's a great way to get a couple different beers out of batch. AND, the picnic tap is a must for sneaking a taste.
@Jeff - Thanks for the comment. I have not used all of the different types of wood media. I used the recommendations I found from the manufacturer for the ones I have not tried. Tasting is key, for sure.
@Ted ... see you have one of the Balcones barrels in the pic in your article. I have one as well and about to fill it for the first time. A couple of questions:
1) How long do you typically age your beers in the barrel? I know, I know YMMV but as a general guideline are you leaving the beer in for a week? a month?
2) I don't want it to become a sour barrel but keep it "clean" How have you done that will multiple beers? Do you have beer ready to age when you're done aging the beer in it? Or flush with hot water or a different cleanser? Any tips on this would be much appreciated.
Thanks for the article Ted. I really appreciate those that take the time to put these quick read, informative articles together. Very well put together and just informative enough to keep it short and simple. You've set the groundwork for me to dig in a bit deeper!
@Tim. Sorry for late reply. There is no notifications on these articles. I usually check back about once a month.
We have aged 3 beers In our barrel, so far. We have aged between 3 and 6 months. It really needs to be sampled over time, to make sure you get exactly what you want. I.e. want more oak, age longer.
We have always refilled the same day we emptied a barrel. You can time it to the end of your fermentation.
We add some bourbon to the barrel and roll it around and let it sit for a couple hours, to kill off nasties and try to renew the lose of bourbon flavor that is inevitable with continued use.
I hope that answers your questions.
Almost forgot. If you are filling for the first time, you will need to rehydrate your barrel to swell it and stop it from leaking. We used 180+ degree water the night before and dumped right before filling.
Thank you for the nice article! You have got me thinking about a wine barrel I bought recently. I've got an idea of what to do with it now.
I aged a high gravity ale (The Devil's Heart of Gold) in a oak bourbon barrel for 10 1/2 months to open on the 4th of July, it turned out great. The ABV was right at 12%. The barrel was rotated out with a strong Stout to open at Thanksgiving to help bring out the Pilgrim in me.
I also picked up 3 of the used BALCONES casks, 1 was used for bourbon, and 2 were used for rye. They are being water-soaked right now, I have a Tripel fermenting right now, and I think I will use one of the rye barrels when it is ready.
Next up on the list is a pale barleywine, also thinking rye barrel for that. Then, an Imperial stout for the Bourbon barrel. Will keep you updated how this all turns out.
QUESTION ------ what is the best or proper way to install a wooden spigot into a wooden barrel.?/
is it banged in with a hammer/mallet ??
thanks and i am looking for authenticity for an old time play at a Community Theater