I spent the better part of the day Sunday hanging out with some great folks of the Nash St. Homebrew Club in Hillsborough, NC. The club was over at Mystery Brewing Company to brew up 60 gallons of Flanders Red that will eventually make it’s way into a used wine barrel for a year of aging. For the recap of the event (and some great photos) check out the post from Paul and Lara on Citra Loves Sorachi.
A lot of clubs and groups of brewers like the idea of being able to barrel age their beer – to get that distinct *barrel character* that is so coveted, but the logistics can sometimes be a bit difficult. Below are a few tips and resources you can use to help plan out a barrel aging project for yourself.
Where to get a barrel?
A barrel is traditionally a unit of measure, though the exact size of a barrel varies. Beer is measured and sold in barrel units, though we mostly deal in more manageable sized 1/2-barrel kegs or even as small as 1/6-barrel kegs. These refer to a barrel equaling 31.5 US gallons. However, wineries and distilleries that use actual barrels typically use barrels in the 50-60 US gallon size.
All of that is to say that an oak barrel coming from a winery or distillery is typically around 55 gallons in size (a “hogshead” if you will). And they are hard to find. Wineries and distilleries still age most, if not all, of their product in barrels. Some styles of spirits and wines require fresh oak barrels, thus, when the distillery/winery is done with a barrel, they often will sell it.
Granted, most of these barrels then find their way into one of the many craft breweries for use. Then, once the brewery no longer has any use for it, they will again sell or donate the used barrel.
Since barrels have such a long life, not many come up for sale very often, and when they do, they can be quite expensive.
The best way to get your hands on a barrel is to use the power in numbers – get together with your local homebrew club and reach out to your local craft breweries. See if you can borrow the barrel for a single beer, if they aren’t interested in allowing the club to purchase a barrel. This is what Mystery Brewing Company was kind enough to do for the Nash Street Homebrew Club.
You can also find smaller barrels (though they aren’t technically barrels at different sizes, right?) online. I have seen 5 and 10-gallon used whiskey/bourbon barrels for sale from Northern Brewer as well as UK Brewing Supplies every once in a while. Here is one at Adventures in Homebrewing. They have a variety of sizes of barrels.
But maybe a barrel isn’t actually in your price range, or maybe you just don’t have room to store a large oak barrel for a year while your beer ferments. There are plenty of substitutes that can recreate that barrel flavor, such as oak chips (try soaking them in bourbon for a few days first), oak cubes, and my favorite, oak honeycomb.
How much beer has to be brewed?
As I mentioned above, a barrel, by definition, is roughly 31.5 gallons of beer. However, as you can see, there are several other sizes of “oak casks” available that can suit the needs of any homebrewer. But, if you are using a wine or whiskey barrel, then you need to brew roughly 55-60 gallons to fill it.
No matter what size barrel you buy, make sure that you fill it up, leaving as little headspace as possible. Remember, your primary fermentation will be happening in a normal carboy or bucket, then the barrel will just be used for aging, so we want to eliminate any extra headspace to decrease the amount of oxygen that is introduced to the beer as it ages.
If you go for the full barrel, doing a big group brew such as the one at Mystery Brewing can be a lot of fun. Then you get to split up the beer amongst everyone once it’s ready to drink. If you plan on going it alone, then I would recommend a smaller barrel or a larger brewing system!
What styles are best for barrel aging?
There are definitely certain beer styles that are more traditionally barrel-aged. However, don’t let this limit your creativity – you can barrel age whatever you’d like, baring in mind the following considerations:
- Higher alcohol beers age best
- Hoppy beers will loose their hoppy profile over extended aging periods
- Malt forward beers usually complement the oak flavor best
- Light or delicate flavors in beers can be overwhelmed by a barrel that was used for spirits or wine
- Consider what beer flavors will complement the oak, spirit or wine flavors you plan on extracting from the barrel
- If you use a barrel for sour beer, it will be hard to age any non-sour beer in that barrel afterward
How long does it have to stay in the barrel?
Once you put a beer in a barrel to age, how long does it need to stay in there? That is an often-debated question, but the best answer is to let your tastebuds decide. You can always tack a small nail into the barrel and pull the nail out to get a sample every few weeks. But the reigning rule of thumb is that the smaller the barrel is, the less time it needs to age. Why is that? Because a larger percentage of the beer is in contact with the surface of the barrel.
Larger barrels contain a LOT of beer, and not much of it is coming into contact with the oak and absorbing the flavors. In contrast, smaller barrels hold less beer, so there is a smaller percentage of beer that is not touching the oak, resulting in more flavor absorption over a shorter period of time.
Typically, breweries will age their barrel-aged beers in 55-gallon barrels for at least a year, especially if they are sour beers that require extended aging anyway. But on a smaller 5 to 10-gallon barrel, you can have perfectly aged beer in a matter of weeks, or at most a couple of months.
So give it a shot, find a barrel, brew some beer, store it in the barrel and see what happens. I would love to hear what sorts of concoctions folks have come up with for barrel aging. Feel free to tell us your barrel-aging stories in the comments below!