Get you chuckles out of the way as I’m gonna say wood a lot in this one… heh, wood. Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s get down to business!
Wood aging beer has occurred for thousands of years, from casks to massive oak vats, as long as beer has flown so has wood encased it. There are nearly as many ways to get these flavors into a beer as there are woods to choose from. Within this article, I will cover the types of wood I’ve both heard of and used, plus a few new ones.
Let us first begin with covering the ways of getting wood flavor into your beer.
I’m not going to sugar coat things here folks. Powder is a cheap, fast and dirty way to get wood flavor into your brew. I’m not saying it’s sawdust… but it’s sawdust. If you don’t have time to let a batch sit and absorb the flavor then, by all means, go for it.
Not quite as down and dirty as it’s powdered counterpart. They don’t offer a terribly large amount of character but in a pinch, they will do the trick. They do offer a quick infusing of character, though.
An old standard, most homebrewers have soaked these in some spirit or potent potable at one time or another. Ideal for a beginner trying to add wood character to a beer. These lack the complexity you get from cubes, spirals, or an actual barrel while still offer a nice wood note.
These lil’ guys are essentially staves from a barrel cut into little bite-sized pieces for easier use. They will have both toasted and untoasted sides. It’s through these that you can get the flavors of the raw wood and the toasted wood.
A newer tool, at least in my brewing arsenal. Spirals make adding wood to beer super easy; there’s no weighing, you just plunk in one spiral per three gallons for a good character. The extraction is also pretty quick at six weeks compared to months from other options.
No, I’m not telling you to go and grab a tree branch and throw it in your fermenter. Sticks look like little planks of wood that you can throw into your fermenter and let the magic take place. I’m not sure my opinion of these as they just seem to allow the flavor to get into the beer quickly. Some manufacturers say that they cannot over flavor the beer. I have yet to test sticks, but I am doubtful.
An Actual MFin’ Barrel
The OG of getting wood into your beer is getting your beer into wood! I’ve
done most of the previously mentioned methods as well as the actual barrel, and I must say that the barrel is a huge pain in the ass, and the flavors therein can be imitated pretty easily. While it does look cool and feel awesome to have one. You aren’t any less of a brewer if you’re not stacking barrels 3 high.
Types of Wood
There are many trees on this planet, some tasty, some not, and some that will kill you. So I urge you to please do your research so you don’t get murdered by Mother Nature. Though, you probably deserve it. I know I do.
A staple in American bourbon production, American Oak shows up all over the place in homebrew stores. From vintner to brewer it finds its home in many a carboy. From light to heavy toast its flavors mutate quite nicely. With lighter toastings, American Oak manifests notes of vanilla, cream soda, and coconut. Whereas darker toasts will provide caramel, leather, and light tobacco notes.
A lesser known option but still delicious none the less. Hungarian Oak provides subtle notes of vanilla, roasted coffee, bittersweet chocolate, and black pepper.
One of my personal favorites when making wine or doing sour ales. French oak is a genuine delight imparting flavors of cinnamon, allspice, custard, Crème Brule, milk chocolate, and roasted coffee. It also gives a nice amount of aromatics plus sweetness on the mouth feel.
Another lesser used wood, Spanish Cedar is actually a type of Mahogany. I love using this stuff in beer that tends to be sweeter in its finish as the cedar dries out the beer pretty well. Spanish Cedar imparts flavors of grapefruit, sandalwood, white pepper, and hints of clove… as well as cedar.
Cherry, Hard Maple, Hickory, Red Oak, Sassafras, Soft Maple, White Ash, and Yellow Birch. I’ve not played with these, but I just found a place, Black Swan Barrels, that carries “honeycombs” made out of them as an alternative to barrel aging.
Amount and Time
I don’t think I’ve found any perfect amount for adding wood to a beer/wine; I find each type takes to different beers in different ways. I usually follow the old cooking motto: you can always add more, but you can’t take any out. With most wood, though, it will fall out in time, but I must say its character gets into things much faster than it gets out.
When to Wood
The best brewers don’t make a beer to add wood too; they add it to a beer that calls for it. Use your judgment when it comes to deciding to add wood to something. Don’t just do it because the recipe says to. At times, simplicity is your strongest ally.
I hope I’ve managed to cover any questions you may have about the addition of wood to your brewing. If you have any additional questions or would like to submit a topic for me to cover in one of these articles, contact me at Johnathon.firstname.lastname@example.org and as always keep the beer flowing and your knowledge growing.