A log cabin versus a sheet metal shed.
A lumber yard versus a brass foundry.
A rural wood-frame whistle-stop train station versus a metropolitan union hub with stone pillars.
The sound of acoustic blues absorbing the warmth of a softwood stage versus reflecting the walls of a subway platform.
Stone & metal are great at containing our civilization, sheltering us from the elements & keeping us productively filed within our shares of landscape. But the marvel of using wood for the crafts of our society remains to me a greater amazement. Within dozens to hundreds of years, the Earth is able to produce tall wide trees that take in the character of their parentage & landscape and ultimately provide us with materials that continue to evolve throughout their useful life. Though it won’t last as long as a cold rigid steel model, a wooden chair serves its function while continuing to age alongside its occupant. In awe of a fireplace, sitting on a concrete or tiled grade doesn’t evoke a feeling nearly as relaxed & contented as a well-worn finished wood floor.
Though its advent affords us a selection of beverages from around the world, each of us will never outlast a stainless steel keg. To drink a glass of beer or wine that has spent any of its fermentable life encased or exposed to wood is to reiterate and engage yourself in blissful tasty mortality.
Oak is generally the most available & desirable wood on which beer can be aged, though brewers are starting to experiment with Cedar, Maple, Hickory, various fruit trees and even Spruce for more exotic flavor contributions. Mash grains can be smoked on a mesh screen over burning wood so that the liquid malt flavor takes on the character of the wood, but such is mostly noticeable when a high enough proportion of the smoked malt makes up an all-grain recipe. Exposing either extract or all-grain brews to wood during secondary fermentation is a convenient way to provide the greatest impact on the flavor of the beer in your glass.
There are quite a few shapes of wood products available for homebrewers. Chips are shredded wood & an economical choice. Cubes (or beans) are just as inexpensive & easy to remove from the fermentor during cleaning, but expose the beer to a slightly greater amount of the wood’s surface area compared to chips. Spirals & OakBOYs are the latest evolution in wooden brewing, maximizing flavor with surface area exposure in a form that’s easy to drop into a carboy. Escalating toast levels delivery more intense aromas. All types of wood add a mellow smoothness that can compliment flavors contributed from caramel or roasted malts, round out hop bitterness, or blend with fruity/sour yeast characters. One can practically mimic having a liquor barrel by soaking these oak products in spirits such as rum, scotch, bourbon, wine, etc.; doing so also takes care of sterilizing the ingredients – an essential step since since they’re to be added into secondary after the yeast cells have gone mostly dormant.
The recipe I offer is my effort at cloning a dangerously smooth IPA brewed by Court Avenue Brewing Company in Des Moines, Iowa: 21st Amendment IPA. A nice amber-colored American IPA on the slightly malt-sweet side, Court Ave. ages this beer in oak barrels purchased from the Templeton Rye distillery – makers of a pre prohibition-style whiskey only available in Illinois, Iowa, NYC & San Francisco. The whiskey itself is complex but entirely smooth, and those characteristics make their way well into the beer’s finish. The finished beer is granted a mellow sweet character with a not-at-all subtle note of spice. The strong & sweet liquid malt with plenty of orange/grapefruit zest from Amarillo & Cascade hops take on a boozy well-rounded taste of lemon grass from the Templeton barrels. In a tulip glass, the whole bouquet marches across the tongue, nicely coating one’s cheeks after each tasty sip.
Short of obtaining a barrel straight from Templeton in Iowa, the best way to flavor this zesty pale ale is a month-long secondary fermentation on 2-3 ounces of whiskey barrel oak chips. These oak chips are made by Vinoferm from retired whiskey barrels that are shredded into flat chips & sold in 8 ounce bags. One bag provides more than enough chips for experimenting with several five gallon batches, or an adequate amount for flavoring 15 or 20 gallon batches. Just soak the chips overnight in a neutral spirit like vodka to sterilize, strain out the liquid spirits & drop the chips into your secondary fermentor. If you’re within range of obtaining some Templeton Rye Whiskey, I would boldly recommend soaking the Vinoferm chips in enough of the product to cover the chips, and save the rest for making a nice BBQ glaze/sauce or filling snifters when discerning friends are in company.
I’d also suggest the following beer/oak combinations for some smooth & lively changes to your typical batch of homebrew:
- Belgian Tripel on Merlot-soaked Hungarian oak medium Toast oak cubes
- Barley Wine on sherry barrel chips
- Chocolate Milk Stout on Jack Daniels-soaked US Medium Toast oak cubes
- Scottish Wee Heavy on 2 Glenlivet-soaked French Medium-Plus Toast oak spirals
- Petite Saison d’Ete on French oak chips
- Maibock on 2 American Medium-Plus Toast oak spirals
- Bourbon Barrel Porter (Oak cubes are included in this one, Makers Mark Whiskey is not)
Steve’s tribute to CABCo’s 21st Amendment IPA:
5.5 gallons all-grain
8 lbs. Rahr 2-Row
2 lbs. Canada Malting Pale Ale Malt
2 lbs. Weyermann Pale Rye Malt
14 oz. Briess Caramel 20L
4 oz. Briess Caramel 80L
1 oz. English Roasted Barley
Mash for 60 minutes at 153 degrees F. Sparge to collect 7 gallons.
Extract option: Replace the 2-row & rye malts with 6.3 pounds of NB Gold Malt Syrup & 3.15 pounds of NB Rye Malt Syrup. Steep other grains for 20 min. or until kettle water reaches 170 degrees F.
1.5 oz. Amarillo hop pellets (substitute: Ahtanum) @ 60 min.
1 oz. Cascade hop pellets @ flameout
0.5 oz. Amarillo @ flameout.
Chill to 68 degrees F. & pitch either a 2 liter starter or two packs of Wyeast 1056 American Ale yeast (substitute: US-05 dry yeast).
Ferment 2 weeks primary (FG: 1.013 – 1.016), 4 weeks secondary on 2-3 ounces of Vinoferm Whiskey Barrel oak chips (presoaking 16 oz. in Templeton Rye Whiskey is optionally encouraged). Bottle/keg condition 2-3 weeks (repitch with US-05 dry yeast if bottling).