Every once in a while, we get a question from the twitter universe that we don’t know the answer to. Truth is, we get an occasional question, and we often don’t know the answer. The fun part with this is it gives us a chance to find out about something we haven’t yet tried, and we add it to our list of things to do. One such question came in a couple of days ago related to wood chips, so herein lies some answers, or at least insightful comments.
For years, people have been fermenting their beer in barrels, usually oak barrels that previously contained bourbon, whiskey, or other sweet distilled liqueurs. These liqueurs impart their aroma, taste and character onto the beer. Many times, people who decide to ferment in such vessels acquire them from a distiller and recondition them, to make them water tight again. Unfortunately for the homebrewer, the cost of such barrels is usually prohibitively expensive, and quite honestly, a 55g barrel in your garage/basement/brew shed takes up a lot of space. Even if you are doing 10g batches, the container is only 1/5th full, and the fermenting gods won’t like that very much.
How then, do we get around this issue? There are a couple solutions. A quick search on the internet turned up several choices for pre-conditioned 5g barrels that run between $140 and $170, plus shipping. This would be a very nice choice for those who have the cash to spend on such a fine piece of craftsmanship. The barrel should easily last close to 10 years, which will give you many flavorful homebrews.
If a barrel isn’t your style, or you aren’t sure if a barrel is your style, there is the option of wood chips. You can use any number or types of wood, but oak seems to be quite popular. Wood chips inside your secondary fermenter can have very much the same effect as using a barrel as a secondary fermenter (You should avoid using a barrel as a primary due to lack of head space, and inability to easily see what’s going on inside). The first question is, how much? Much like hops, the wood imparts a flavor on the beer relative to its surface area. Many small piece of wood have more surface area than one large piece, thus it will be smarter to go with several smaller pieces, but how much? The first thought would probably be, “a 5g barrel weighs 20lbs, I should use 20lbs of wood chips.” This is a bad idea. A barrel’s surface area is only one side of the wood to the beer. The barrel’s weight also contains metal, and 20lbs of wood in a fermenter will fill it. Your best bet is to think of wood chips like hops. Go on the heavy side of what you would dry hop – 2-4oz.
You have your wood chips, your beer has been transferred to a secondary fermenter, and you realize, the wood chips aren’t sanitary! This is quite easily fixed. The first thing you should do is bake the wood chips in your oven for 30 minutes, or until dried out. This will ensure that they are sanitary, but will also get rid of much of the flavor. The next step is to soak the wood chips in your favorite liquor for a day (this doesn’t need to be done every time, but definitely the first time). I prefer a bourbon or whiskey – don’t go too cheap. The next step is simply to be patient. Your beer will slowly take on the taste of the wood chips in the secondary fermenter. When you rack your beer to the keg (or bottle), save the wood chips. You can reuse them if you bake them and store them in an airtight container. Soak them in water to rehydrate them before using them in another beer (or throw them in another beer right away).
At this point, if all goes well, you should have the knowledge to create an oak fermented style of beer, with or without an actual barrel. This is definitely something we’re likely to try with a winter warmer, because, quite frankly, a little bit of bourbon flavor in a nice homebrew is the perfect way to spend a cold February afternoon.