Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Working With Oak

Working with White Oak is really easy. It's sold plentifully for wine making as well as beer making. It can impart roasted flavors, vanilla flavors, tannins, resins, or spices. It imparts a terrior from where it is grown. It comes anywhere from raw to heavily toasted. Oak can also be used to intentionally carry microbes from one beer to another. Russian River occasionally distributes wood chips made from breaking up old barrels at trade shows, and through contests; sour beer fans snap these up trying to get the microbes in the wood for their own beers.
(Read more after the break.)

Oak Shapes/Forms/Products

Chips - These look like typical wood chips and are evenly toasted, they also have a high degree of surface area which imparts oak flavor quickly and is also spent quickly. This can be an advantage if you are oaking a pale ale and you want to get it into the glass quickly or if you want the most predictable flavor because of only one depth of toast.

Cubes - These are cubes of cut wood, and are toasted irregularly. Because of the shape they become toasted more at the edges then near the center, this adds to the depth of flavors which you get from adding oak cubes. The also impart flavor less quickly than chips allowing for greater control as a beer ages.

Staves - Are like super cubes, they are thick rectangular dowels which carry similar properties to cubes. These are more typically used for wine.

Spirals - A hybrid of chips and cubes. These are large dowels with a channel cut in a tight spiral around the center. These are toasted and should offer the depth of flavor that oak cubes offer because they aren't toasted as evenly. Because of thin spiral and grain pattern they should impart oak flavor more quickly.

Toast Levels
Oak can be toasted from a light drying toast all they way to a black ashy toast. The amount of toast changed the flavor imparted by the oak from a resony, and woody to carmelly and roasty. Vanillanin and other desirable chemicals are also impacted by toasting to some degree.

Country of Origin

American Oak - Has a strong flavor, sharp and wood. This type of oak has the most upfront oaken flavor that is recognizable as wood. Not subtle at all; like many things American.

Hungarian Oak - has a middle of the road flavor which is the richest in vanilla tones. The oak comes through as a sweet mostly vanilla flavor with wood blending in underneath.

French Oak - Is the most subtle and authentically European flavor It is priced as the premium product for oaking. French oak is sought after by wine makers to emulate fine french wines. Subtle and somewhat sweet with light vanilla and wood notes. It imparts a good flavor over time that is a nice balance of toast, oak, tannins, and other flavors.

Preparing Oak
To prepare first use oak I clean it either by boiling it in water for 15 minutes to an hour or soak it in a distilled spirit for a week or so. 80 proof bourbon or vodka will kill all of the beer souring organisms that might be hiding in the wood. For transporting sour bugs I plan to take the wood from the fermentor and put it in an empty cool oven until it's dry and then to store it in a zip lock bag until I re use it. I want to use an oven because I can sanitize it the night before by running it at 350 for an hour and because the bacteria floating around my house are less likely to land on it in the oven. Be careful not to heat the wood too warm or you'll kill the bugs you worked so hard for.

Flavoring the Wood
For the flavors of bourbon and other spirits I like to soak the wood in the alcohol for as long as I can before using it. When a brewery uses 18 year old Elijah Craig barrels they are using barrels which have had 18 years to permeate with that flavor, If you want your oak to impart a spirit flavor you need to give it a touch of time to soak in that goodness. For Wine or other less potent alcohols I soak the oak in Vodka first. After a week I dump the vodka and add wine or other spirits.

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