Stout Guy Brewing Techniques - Oak Beer with No Barrel

One of the big trends in recent years for microbreweries has been the "Bourbon Barrel" beer. Very few of us can practically use a real barrel. Few folks live within driving distance of a winery or distillery that sells used barrels. While it's possible to order used whiskey barrels (e.g. The Lynchburg General Store) homebrewers still run into the practical issue of how to brew, handle and consume the 55 gallons of beer necessary to keep a barrel in good working order.
(If you're really curious about how to use oak barrels, I do have a few notes on them here.)

Fortunately, the answer lies in a variation of an ingreident found in most homebrew and home winemaking stores. Most will carry a product called "Oak Chips". While it's possible to use these I've found that the oak character given to your brew is harsher and less subtle from the increased surface area than the character that comes from a superior product produced by a few manufacturers, Oak Beans or Oak Nuggets. I personally use the Oak Nuggets, purchased from my local homebrew supply store, Home Beer Wine Cheesemaking Shop. The Oak Nuggets are a little harder to find right now, but I feel they give a more rounded oak profile than anything else on the market. I have not tried the oak strips and stave products just starting to appear. For the purposes of flavoring the oak, I think the Bean/Nugget format is more useful for homebrewers. And please, please stay away from anything that comes in a tea bag or is called "Oak Dust."

To use the oak beans/nuggets to impart a flavor to your brew, you first need to sanitize them as much as you can a porous organic product. While steaming is the fastest way and the most useful for winemaking, I prefer to flavor my oak with spirits to get a double effect for my money. For this you can use any spirit that you'd like, I've used Bourbon and Tequila to great effect.

Recipe for a Bourbon Barrel Beer
2-6 ounces - French or American Oak Beans/Nuggets (French is softer, American is more aggressive)
1 750ml - Cheap Bourbon (Ten High is my favorite for this)
5 gallons of homebrew (Beers with a malty base seem to work best)

Prep Time for the Beans: 2 weeks-1 year
Aging Time for the Beer: 2 weeks (65F+) - 4 weeks (45F)
    Combine beans and spirits in a jar or bucket with a tight fitting lid. Allow the beans to marinate for as long as possible
    In preparation for secondary fermentation, measure approximately 2 ounces of beans from the bucket and place into the carboy. Don't sweat trying to get all the spirits off the oak, but don't go and pour a lot of the very oaky spirits into the carboy.
    After primary fermentation, rack the beer into secondary onto the oak and allow the beer to steep on the oak for 2-4 weeks.
    Following aging, rack beer off for packaging as you would normally and proceed.

One beer that I brew several times annually that uses this technique is my American Bourbon IPA. The recipe is formulated to carry a bit more malt body to it than I would normally prefer in a regular IPA. The addition of the oak and the tannins imparted by the oak work to cut through the malty body to still provided a dry finish. Without the extra maltiness, the beer would feel more astringent than would be pleasant.

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