Aging Homebrew with DIY Barrel Staves
By Lance Bollinger
Great examples of barrel-aged craft beer abound and offer endless inspiration for a homebrewer. Wood imparts unique flavors that can accentuate certain aspects of a beer or add a layer of complexity to your homebrew. Wood-aged beers might also be more historically accurate interpretations since barrels (not stainless steel brite tanks) were used as aging vessels when many beer styles were developed.
Craft beer drinkers (myself included) rightly love high gravity, boozy, decadent imperial stouts aged in bourbon barrels and wild farmhouse ales aged in red wine barrels, but these aren’t exactly session beers and aren’t always seasonal. How does one create a tequila barrel pale ale for summer sipping, a rum-barrel porter for the fireside, or a brandy-barrel dessert barleywine? If you’re a homebrewer, you do like always and DIY an answer!
DIY barrel staves offer several advantages to barrel aging for the homebrewer, namely: 1) versatility of wood and spirit flavors, 2) saving space (and money) for your brewery, 3) lower risk of oxidation, and 4) greater surface area and penetration of liquid into the wood. DIY barrel staves can be prepared on brew day, but I always keep a few jars of oak staves soaking in various spirits to replicate the long-term barrel aging effect.
Preparing your own staves or wood chips isn’t an exact replica of the way your favorite craft brewery conducts barrel aging. However, this technique plays to the advantages of homebrewing to create flavor profiles that are difficult to produce at scale. Below are some general guidelines to help you get started in creating DIY barrel staves.
Plan your beer and source the appropriate wood. Whisky barrels are made of white oak due to its unique properties of holding liquid. The table here provides general guidelines for flavor profiles of various woods. Just be sure your type of wood is safe for consumption. I get mine from raw wood, but smoking chips are a cheap and accessible alternative. Choose a flavor profile that works with your specific beer style. Liquid penetrates about ¼” into into wooden (oak) barrels. So, if you’re creating your own staves, aim for about ½” thick wood pieces. Cut or split your wood along the grain. Cross-cutting gives a less desirable flavor profile.
Condition the wood by toasting or charring. Different heat levels bring out various flavors. I recommend an open flame or food-safe torch, but better temperature control may give better results. For oak, this table provides flavor profiles that can be expected. Rather than varying the heat throughout the conditioning phase, I simply use a blend of toasted and charred oak to impart multiple layers of oak flavor. Knock off excess char if you feel it’s necessary. Char may fall loose from the stave in your aging beer, either impairing clarity or clogging filters when transferring.
Age the wood with your spirit of choice. Alcohol is volatile and flammable, so ensure the wood is cooled before adding to your spirits. The high temperatures from conditioning and high alcohol content of the spirits will effectively sanitize the wood. Varying the temperature of the container may accelerate flavor exchange between your spirits and wood. Aging a five gallon batch of beer on 2 ounces of wood for 8 weeks imparts a noticeable flavor
Add the wood to your secondary fermentation or conditioning beer: Wood soaked in spirits may sink to the bottom of the primary fermenter may get stuck in the yeast cake or trub layer (or scratch a plastic vessel). I recommend adding the wood to an empty vessel, then racking the beer on top. to limit risk of oxidation. If kegging, you can add the wood directly to your keg and allow the beer to mature as you drink it.
Reuse your leftover spirits for aging additional wood (or for drinking)! I only use the staves for a single batch, but the spirits can be reused. The wood will also flavor your spirits, which can be used for sipping or cocktails – just beware the wood flavor will be much more pronounced.
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