Book Review: Wood & Beer: A Brewer's Guide By Dick Cantwell & Peter Bouckaert

Barrel aging beer is all the rage these days, resulting in some of the most sought after beers in America. But it’s not quite as easy as getting a barrel and dumping beer in it. Luckily, Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide By Dick Cantwell & Peter Bouckaert (buy it on Amazon) is here to walk you through everything, and I mean everything, there is to learn about barrels.

Wood & beer

From the days of the amphorae to the first barrels up to an army using empty barrels to make a floating pontoon bridge in 238 CE, barrels have had a very interesting history. But a, perhaps, surprisingly short one only going back 2,500 – 3,000 years.

This is some of the history of barrels that the book opens with. Cantwell & Bouckaert point out that the first time a beer went into a barrel was just to get it from point A to point B, not to impart any flavor. Barrels were one of the primary means of shipping all kinds of different things, beer being one of many.

Wood Maintenance

The single biggest section of this book is the chapter on wood maintenance: organizing, inspecting, testing, hydrating, cleaning, coopering, fixing leaks, and doing all of those things with foeders. None of these are “sexy” parts of building a barrel program, but all of them are crucial factors that I suspect many new craft breweries are unaware of.

This section is where I think the most brewers would get the most use out of the book. Sure, the history is fun, as is knowing about all the different types of wood that could be used to make a barrel. Brewers also probably, hopefully, already know many of the flavors to expect out of wood, even if they don’t know the science or reasons of how those flavors develop, both of which are things covered in later chapters. But the maintenance of a barrel is key if you want to make great beer again and again in the same barrel.

Wood & Beer for Sours

Rivertown Foeder wood & beer
Rivertown’s Foeder

Brewers were putting sour beer into barrels and foeders decades before anyone thought about putting a stout in a bourbon barrel just for extracting that bourbon flavor. The authors of Wood & Beer do this history justice with a section of the book dedicated to all the magic that happens between wood and the various microbes that make sour beer sour.

This part of the book is worth reading for any sour beer lover, even if you never plan on putting anything into a barrel. The big takeaways are that once you sour that barrel it’ll become nearly impossible to completely remove the sour bugs.

How to Blend, or not

One slight gripe is the chapter on blending, it’s vague and virtually useless. The authors talk to a variety of big names in barrel aged beers, including Lauren Salazar of New Belgium and Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River. Unfortunately, they remain cagey about exactly how they blend. You can get some hints at the general process, but there’s no step by step.

I understand that blending can be a very difficult subject that is far more of an art than a science. Even if you’ve made the exact same beer in the same barrels there are many factors that could change what comes out the other end.

Wood & Beer For Homebrewers

This book is targeted at professional brewers, but that doesn’t mean a homebrewer can’t benefit from it. The authors added two appendices specifically for homebrewers: “Appendix A: Techniques for Wood- and Barrel-Aging for Homebrewers” and “Appendix B: Wood Primer for Homebrewers.”

This is something Jhon Campbell tackled for us with his article Adding Wood Flavor to Your Homebrew. Though Wood & Beer offers a much more concise chart of all the different formats of wood (chip vs cube vs stave, etc…) and how to prepare them, how long to leave them in the beer, amounts to use, and so on and so forth. If you’re serious about aging your homebrew on beer both Jhon’s article and this book will be great references.

Next Book Review? Brewing Local by Stan Hieronymus

As I finished this book I received a review copy of Stan Hieronymus’ new book Brewing Local: American-Grown Beer (buy it on Amazon) so look forward to my review of that. I thumbed through it and am excited to dig into it. It’s got a huge section listing a variety of trees, plants, fruits, veggies and they can add to your beer. Should provide interesting ideas for folks to tinker with, crab apple sour anyone?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I received a review copy of this book from the publishers. To our readers, and any companies interested in sending samples. Sending a sample does not guarantee you a favorable review or that I will tell everyone to go buy it.

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