Do You Even Oak, Bro?


Do You Even Oak, Bro?

(Oak-aging beer)

If you’re like me, you can’t get enough of barrel-aged beers.  I love drinking them and I love brewing them.  Barrel-aging adds wonderful complexity to beer.  It can impart flavors from whatever was originally aged in the barrel (i.e. Bourbon, wine, rum, etc…).  I don’t, however, have the need or an interest in purchasing and maintaining oak barrels.

We, as homebrewers, can “cheat” our way into the barrel-aging craze.  There are multiple ways to impart that woody goodness and most are simpler and faster than traditional barrel-aging.

Oak Extract and Oak Powder:  While very quick and convenient, this method is not my favorite.  It’s somewhat unpredictable what sort of oak character you’ll get and whatever character you do get, I find to be 1-dimensional.

Oak Chips:  Oak chips are nice because they’re relatively quick in extracting the oak character (about 2 weeks for full extraction), they’re affordable and there are a variety of toasts and countries of origin available.  The downside is that, again, because they’re so thin, you don’t get a whole lot of depth to the oak flavor.

Oak Cubes:  Like chips, cubes are affordable and offer variety.  The’re a bit thicker, so they tend to offer up a little more complexity.  They do take a bit longer than the aforementioned barrel alternatives (about 4-6 weeks for full extraction), but worth the wait if you have the time and patience.

Oak Spirals or Staves:  I’ve never worked with staves, but oak spirals are my favorite means of oaking beer.  The’re about 1″ in diameter so you’ve got a good level of depth to the oak flavor, but the spiraling also creates large surface area so extraction of all that depth of wood is relatively quick.  I’ve heard it said spirals can take up to 20 weeks, but I’ve gotten fantastic results with a booze tincture soak for 1 week and 6-8 weeks in the beer.  Again – you can get spirals in American, French or Hungarian oak varieties and with various levels of toast.


My Method:

As mentioned above, I typically use oak spirals, but with spirals, chips or cubes I follow the same procedure.  I decide which sort of barrel I’d like to emulate, break the spirals in halves or thirds and put them in a mason jar to soak for a week in whichever type of booze-character I’m trying to emulate.  Bourbon is typical, but I’ve done rum, port, vodka (very neutral) and tequila.

Once the week-long soak is completed, I dump the tincture (oak and booze) straight into the beer to finish extraction.

This method speeds extraction due to the high level of alcohol the wood is exposed to for the first week and it simultaneously sanitizes.

If you’re doing a smaller beer, dumping a bunch of booze in may not be an option.  In this case I would recommend steaming the oak to sanitize or brewing an oak tea where the oak is steeped in hot (160-170F) water for 20 minutes or so, then the wood and liquid are added to the beer.

See the below varieties and what my research and drunken experiments have found to be common aromas and flavors for each.


Oak Varieties:

American oak tends to be “bolder” than French or Hungarian.  More coffee and smokey flavors are present.

  • Light Toast – Vanilla, dill, coconut
  • Medium Toast – Vanilla, honey, caramel, toast, nutty, strong coconut, coffee, cocoa
  • Medium Plus Toast – Similar to Medium with more vanilla and fuller mouthfeel
  • Heavy Toast – Strong coffee, caramelized sugar, smoke, vanilla

French oak tends to have a perceived sweetness.  Spicy & fruity flavors are typical.

  • Light Toast – Vanilla, caramel, spice
  • Medium Toast – Cedar, cigar box, milk chocolate, spice
  • Medium Plus Toast – Vanilla, honey, nutty, a little roasty
  • Heavy Toast – Cedar, charcoal, Asian spice, dark fruit

Hungarian oak is known for high amounts of vanilla and hints of leather.

  • Light Toast – Vanilla, herbal, sweet spice
  • Medium Toast – Strong vanilla, coffee, cocoa, black pepper
  • Medium Plus Toast – Strong vanilla, cocoa, slight smoke and coffee
  • Heavy Toast – Strong spice, vanilla, butterscotch, toffee, molasses



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