Oak in Your Beer – Oak Chips and Barrel Aging

by Brad Smith on February 20, 2012 · 8 comments

The use of oak and other woods in flavoring beer has enjoyed a resurgence recently among home brewers and some micro breweries. Oak is commonly used in winemaking, and was once widely used to barrel beer. This week we take a look at using oak to flavor your beer.

When To Use Oak

Oak flavor does not match every single beer. Oak barrels were widely used for storing beer for thousands of years, however you probably don’t want to accent your delicately balanced Koelsch or Bohemian Pilsner with oak chips. Oak is most strongly associated with English and some Scotch ales such as Old Ales, Stouts, Porters, Browns, IPAs and some Bitters. Some brewers have used oak in Belgian styles such as the darker Belgian Ales, Farmhouse Ale, or Saison. More rarely you will see oak used with darker central european beers such as Bock or Schwarzbier.

In general oak flavoring is associated with darker, older beers or beers replicating historic brewing techniques.

Types of Oak

There are many types of oak though the three most popular are American, Hungarian and French. French oak provides the mildest flavor including some sweet vanilla hints, while American oak gives the strongest oak flavor. Hungarian oak provides a middle ground.

The flavor of oak also can be changed by toasting your oak. The dark toasted oak has a more carbonized or carmelized flavor while lightly toasted or untoasted oak has a much more mild flavor. Toasting is usually graded on a light-medium-heavy scale and you can purchase wood chips toasted at these different levels.

Forms of Oak for Homebrewing

  • Oak Chips – These are the most popular form used in home brewing – typically the chips are sold in a bag and look like wood shavings. The small chips have a large surface area which delivers the oak flavor to the beer quickly. The only disadvantage is that the small chips can be hard to separate from the finished beer, so it is important to have them in a grain or hop bag so they can be easily removed after aging.
  • Oak Cubes – Packages of cubes are also widely available from home brewing supply shops. They work similarly to chips but take longer to impart their flavor as they have much less surface area than oak chips. However the advantage of cubes is that they can easily be separated from the beer when you are finished aging.
  • Spirals – Though less common that cubes or chips, spiral cut oak is a compromise that offers a large surface area similar to chips, but are still easy to remove like cubes. Therefore they still impart flavor to the beer quickly but allow for removal. Their only disadvantage is that they are more expensive than chips or cubes.
  • Oak Essence and Oak Powder – Oak essence (such as Sinatin 17) is a liquid flavor extract that can be stirred in at bottling time to taste. Oak powder is similar – essentially it is a powdered oak flavor stirred into the beer. Both work instantly and can be added in small amounts to taste.
  • Barrels – Oak barrels offer both unique opportunities and challenges. They are generally pretty expensive to purchase unless you get a great deal on a used one, but they offer a lot of potential for reuse. They can be a challenge however, as older barrels can get infected, can leak, allow some oxygen in, and may have their own flavors depending on what they were previously used for. Some home brewers prize used sherry, whiskey and bourbon barrels for the added flavor they impart, but you need to make sure the flavor you want matches the barrel’s previous use. Be very careful with wine barrels as most wine flavors don’t go well with beer (try mixing them in a glass sometime). Wine barrels should be sanitized before use, and any barrel needs careful maintenance. Finally it can take some time (often months) to achieve the desired flavor, particularly for larger barrels.

Oak Flavoring Methods

Three major methods are available to home brewers:

  • Oak Aging – The simplest method – which involves adding the oak chips/spirals/cubes after fermentation while aging the beer. Also this is the method used with barrels, since you store the beer in the oak barrel. I recommend sanitizing the chips/spirals/cubes first by steaming them for 15 minutes to reduce the risk of infection (don’t use sanitizing solution as it is absorbed by the chips). Most home brewers add their oak shortly after fermentation completes and before bottling (i.e. in the secondary) and leave the oak in there until they achieve the desired taste – sampling every day or two. Some brewers with keg systems also add the oak chips/cubes in the keg itself – containing it in a bag so it will not block the keg’s dip tube. Oak aging can take anywhere from a few days to several months depending on the oak used and desired flavor level.
  • Oak Tea – You can boil the oak to make an oak tea. Simply drop your chips/spirals/cubes in enough water to cover them fully and bring it to a boil for 10-15 minutes. Once the tea is complete you can add it a bit at a time to the finished beer until you achieve the overall beer flavor you desire. Making a tea is much faster than aging with oak, and also lets you more closely control the flavor.
  • Liquor Tea – If you are looking to add burbon, whiskey or your favorite liquor flavor to the beer you can make a tea using liquor instead. In this case you add the chips/cubes/spirals to a small amount of your favorite liquor (possibly diluted a bit with water) and let it sit for a week. Then mix the liquor in with you beer in small amounts until you achieve the desired overall flavor. Obviously moderation is important here as the liquor can easily overpower the flavor of the beer or wood chips.

Beechwood in Beer

Despite the fact that one very large American brewer advertises their beer as “Beechwood Aged”, beechwood chips do not actually impart flavor to the beer like Oak does. Beechwood is actually used because it has very low phenolic resins so it won’t flavor the beer. Adding beechwood chips to a beer provides a large surface area for yeast cells to attach to and helps in settling and clearing the beer. Beechwood is therefore added at the end of fermentation to help the yeast fall out more quickly which reduces aging time needed for commercial brewers.

I hope these tips help you to add a great oak flavor to your Old Ale or other favorite beer style. Than you for joining me on the BeerSmith blog. If you want articles sent to your inbox weekly, join our newsletter and also check out the BeerSmith podcast available on iTunes.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris February 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Good stuff! I’ve also heard that the denser options with less surface area (ie cubes) tend to impart a more subtle, complex flavor. I’ve tried both chips and cubes, and while the chips certainly worked faster, I preferred the flavor imparted by the cubes. I didn’t find either particularly cumbersome to remove, fortunately.

Justin Bruce February 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Just a few thoughts/questions. From all that I’ve read and heard, the tea methods will add the oak tannins to the the beer as well as flavor. Much of the reading I’ve done recommends soaking the oak in the desired liquor for a few weeks, then adding the oak to the beer and discarding the liquor. The oak soaks up the liquor and adds the flavor to the beer, and the left over liquor removes the tannins in the fresh wood. I’ve also heard the boiling water method is for sanitizing and removing tannins, and the wood, not the tea, is added to the beer.

I also see that you left one huge area out… sours, the perfect beer for wine barrels/wine soaked cubes. I have a few pounds of French Oak Cubes, Med toast that were used to revive an old red wine barrel by a wine maker in Lodi that work great in my lambic.

Justin McLeod March 26, 2012 at 9:27 am

Great article! I have heard of using oak chips/barrels, but never the “tea” method for infusing oak flavors before. I have sampled some tasty “bourbon barrel” stouts that make me want to try this method someday. Thanks!

Conrad Young February 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Wow, this is great! I will certainly be trying this soon (I’m relatively new to home-brewing and I am still trying to find my perfect recipe…)

Do you know if any other woods are used commercially and what those flavors might impart? (For instance if you used wood from a sugar maple tree would it give the beer/liquor a sweeter note?)

Kristopher McAbee May 1, 2013 at 9:38 am

I have been using oak chips for years (mostly chips) and find the subtle flavor pulled out after a week or so in the secondary is amazing. Have made from 5 gallon batches to 25 gallon batches with this method and highly recommend trying it out if you like the flavor of oak aged beers (Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale.) If you haven’t tried one then you should! I simply place in a strain bag and use my rice cooker to steam them then add to my conical after dumping the yeast. The only issue I have had is you need surface area contact and the strain bag can inhibit this but do not make the mistake of putting the chips in loose else you will discover it clogs the dump valve. Happy brewing!

David Gilday October 17, 2014 at 12:28 pm

This author is spot-on, Oak Aging presents a series of challenges no matter which route you take, however the final product far outweighs any added headaches. We exclusively age in 10 and 20 liter medium-charred Oak Barrels. Smaller ones aren’t worth the hassle but they could be used in a pinch. It requires slightly more maintenance, however they are so versatile and give us the ability to layer various flavors that we could never accomplish by using chips or spirals.

Check out http://www.longhornbarrels.com They have a variety of new American Oak Barrels as well as a great cleaning kit after aging any beer or wine.

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