Oaking Your Beer
Adding oak flavours to beer has been making a comeback in recent years. It's usually done in darker/strong styles, one of the most popular of which is Russian Imperial Stout, a beer that is is wonderfully suited for oak barrel aging, especially barrels that were previously used to age bourbon.
Many homebrewers (and even professionals) shy away from oak as it is hard work to keep barrels in good working order. They have to be cleaned, kept bacteria free, and then stored properly when not in use (usually wet to avoid the oak staves from shrinking). Barrels are also expensive and take up a lot of room.
We use a much simpler method which we feel produces excellent results: Instead of adding the beer to a barrel, we simply add the barrel to the beer in the form of good quality oak cubes.
Parts and tools
- Oak cubes
- RAJTAN spice jar (optional)
- Stainless steel dry hopper (optional)
- Unflavoured / unwaxed dental floss (optional)
- Bourbon (optional)
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What kind of oak to use? How much?
The three most popular types of oak are American, Hungarian and French. French provides the mildest flavour including hints of vanilla, while American provides the strongest oak flavour. Hungarian tends to sit somewhere in the middle.
Oak comes is varying 'toast' levels. Dark toasted oak will have a more carbonized or caramelized flavour while lightly toasted area or untoasted oak will produce a much more mild flavour. Oak can usually be purchased with varying toast levels with light, medium, and heavy being the most popular.
Choose your oak based on the style of beer and outcomes you expect. For example, we use American oak for our Russian Imperial Stout as the recipe is decidedly American.
We recommend staying away from oak chips and sawdust when oaking. While they impart flavour quicker, they are toasted to the same level throughout which produces less complex flavours and aromas. Good quality oak cubes are cut from staves that are toasted on one side, just like barrels, allowing the beer to come in contact with varying toast levels. We use oak cubes that are slow fire toasted in the same way as barrels.
What amount of oak to use? We find that 1 oz of cubes (before bourbon soaking) per 5 gallons steeped for 3-4 weeks adds a subtle oak/bourbon flavour that melds perfectly with the chocolate and coffee notes in our Russian Imperial Stout.
Mashing our 10.6% ABV Russian Imperial Stout which will later be oaked
To produce a bourbon barrel aged taste we want in beers such as our Russian Imperial Stout, we soak American medium toast oak cubes in bourbon using a RAJTAN spice jar. Add the oak first and then fill to the top with bourbon and seal. Allow the oak to to steep for approximately one month to soak up bourbon flavours.
Add the bourbon infused cubes to the brite tank (a 5 gallon glass carboy in our case) with the beer after fermentation is done. We discard the bourbon, but it can also be added for an extra kick if you like. Leave the beer on the oak for approximately 3-4 weeks at room temperature and then keg or bottle as you would normally. Discard the oak cubes. Given the long steep time, we usually skip using any finings (such as unflavoured gelatin) in the brite tank as the beer will have time to clear on its own.
If you prefer to skip the brite tank completely and go right into the keg, oak added to a stainless steel dry hopper suspended in the keg also works well. Simply tie a piece of unflavoured / unwaxed dental floss to the top of the dry hopper for easy removal once the desired level of oak is achieved.
Feel free to experiment with different types of oak and toast levels. A word of caution: While oak flavours will fade over time, they will never go away completely, so sample the beer regularly when using oak for the first time to ensure you do not over-oak.
After one month of steeping on bourbon soaked American medium toast oak cubes, our 10.6% ABV Russian Imperial Stout takes on a subtle toasted oak / bourbon flavour as you would get with bourbon barrel aging without all the complexities of barrel management. The oak pairs amazingly well with the rich dark chocolate, coffee, and plum / raisin / prune flavours.
Oaked beers are often ones that will keep well for many years and slowly age and change over time. The oak, hoppiness and other flavours will be more prominent at first and slowly meld together and fade into the background over time.
If you bottle, tuck away a few and try one every year for the next 10+ years.
Questions? Visit our Oaking Your Beer forum thread.
Interested in seeing what we're brewing right now? Follow us on Instagram for pictures and videos of our brewing activities as they happen.
Pictures / Videos
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Getting ready for a 10% ABV Russian Imperial Stout (RIS) it'll be brewing by soaking some Stavin medium toast American cubes in bourbon. I soak for at least one month then add one ounce to each 5 gallon keg of beer for another month. Gives the beer a nice bourbon barrel aged taste without all the work of barrel management. Recipe here: http://www.theelectricbrewery.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=27428 . TheElectricBrewery.com ... A step by step guide to building your own brewery . #TheElectricBrewery #electricbrewery #electricbrewing #homebrewing #homebrew #brewing #craftbeer #homebrewporn #beer #dohomebrew #homebrewer #nanobrewery #russianimperialstout #ris #bourbon #bourbonbarrelaged #bourbonbarrelstout #barrelagedbeer #barrelaged
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Racking and oaking my 10.5% ABV Russian Imperial Stout to turn it into a Bourbon barrel aged beer. The American medium toast oak was soaked in Jim Beam bourbon for ~3 weeks first. After one month on oak this'll get kegged and served on nitro. The beer's been by the numbers so far: Went from 1.100 to 1.021 exactly as planned! More info on oaking your beer in my newsletter here: http://www.theelectricbrewery.com/newsletters/ElectricBrewery_Newsletter_Oct_14_2016.shtm . TheElectricBrewery.com ... A step by step guide to building your own brewery . #TheElectricBrewery #electricbrewery #electricbrewing #homebrewing #homebrew #brewing #craftbeer #homebrewporn #beer #dohomebrew #homebrewer #nanobrewery #russianimperialstout #ris #bourbon #bourbonbarrelaged #bourbonbarrelstout #barrelagedbeer #barrelaged