Wood-aging can be a fickle friend. From our experiments with oak barrels, we know that the subtle play of oak tones ranging from sweet vanilla or caramel notes to mild spiciness of clove or cinnamon to woody aromas and flavors can add dimension and complexity to our ales in a pretty satisfying way. Still, the long amount of time it takes to achieve these flavors from aging in a full barrel sometimes means the compromise of fresher flavors of the hops or malt. Also, our barrels, all former bourbon/wine/brandy barrels, have other flavor components that come into play besides the pure oak.
So, in an effort to see what a little straight oak tones can give to our fresh beers, we recently began experimenting with oak wood chips. Wood chips are small pieces of wood (in our case oak), usually about 2 inches long that have been toasted to varying degrees (untoasted, light, medium, and heavy) to achieve different flavor components. Chips with their greater surface area are able to infuse beers with oak flavors more quickly than barrels, which for us means we can get the oak flavor without losing some of the fresher flavors of our beers.
Brian began by taking growlers of a range of our fresh beers, taken anytime between when the beers had just finished and were conditioning to the point when they were ready to package. “I ran the gamut really: Denog, Barleywine, IPA, Red Eye, Drakonic, Dry Stout, and even a little Hefeweizen,” he said.
He then added a different type of oak-chip to each growler and left them to mellow. Generally Brian said, he likes to taste the beers at 1 week, 2 weeks, up to a month. So, yesterday, at about the 2 week mark of this round of tests, we gathered a seven person panel inside the Barrel House to try what we had.
Overall we came to learn that just a little bit of oak can go a long way. In some of our trials the oak did impart nice flavors but it overpowered the beer, leading us to think that maybe larger chip sizes in smaller amounts could be better. Some of our conclusions were expected—the Drakonic Imperial Stout did well with a hint of oak. Others were unexpected— who knew the Hefeweizen might taste pretty good with a very small dose of heavy toasted oak chips?
Our brewer Alex, noted how she particularly liked how the oak could be used for hoppy beers. “With wood chips, you can retain some of the bitterness and fresh hop character that falls away in the barrels.”
These fresh, oaked beers, Brian explained, could also be use to blend with some barrel-aged beers to further add complexity and freshness. But, he qualifies, “This is Step 1.” There are still many more iterations to come with this process as we work to discover exactly what method, which combinations of chips and ales, and possible what blending options will give us something truly of uncommon deliciousness.
For a more detailed review of oak-aging in general, this article sums things up pretty nicely. –> Using Oak in Beer