Got Wood? An Introduction to Barrel Aging

Barrel aging is a long standing tradition in brewing, and as homebrewers we are in the perfect position to utilize this process. We aren’t restricted by the commercial demands and timelines of the brewing industry, so we have the freedom to set aside a batch for a year and let it age to perfection.

Aging your beer in a barrel can yield some incredible flavors, from smooth bourbon, to dark fruit, to a nice toasty char. It all depends on the barrel you select and the beer you put in. This article is just an introduction to someone hoping to jump into barrel aging, and you’ll quickly learn that this process can be just as complex and satisfying as the brewing itself.

Selecting your Barrel

bourbonbarrelWhen choosing your barrel, there are a few critical elements that you’ll want to keep in mind. The first is the previous contents of the barrel. If you’d like a big bourbon stout then you’ll want a used bourbon barrel. If you want to add a bit of wine character to your old ale, then you’re better off with a barrel used to age wine. If you don’t want any of that character, either find a barrel that wasn’t used to age anything or be prepared to do a few rinse cycles.

Second, you’ll want to keep size in mind. How large is your system? Is it for a group brew? Do you have space to store a barrel? Also keep in mind that the smaller the barrel the higher the volume-to-surface area, and the faster flavors and oxygen are delivered into the liquid. Smaller barrel = less aging time, but also possibly less complexity.

Finally, think about the type and toast of wood used in the barrel. The varying toasts and types of wood impart different flavors into the liquid, so have an idea of what you’d like to be using the barrel for beforehand and then research.

oak banner-F

Cleaning the Barrel

If you barrel is straight from the distiller/vintner and is still a little wet, go head and skip this step. Being fresh, the high ABV liquid in the barrel will (likely) fight off any chance bacteria that has made its way in the barrel, and racking onto the liquid fresh will give you those flavors you’re looking for.

If your barrel isn’t fresh or was ordered online (or you’re just cautious), fill the barrel 1/10th of its volume with hot water. Insert the bung and roll the barrel so that the water coats the inside. Stand the barrel on end and fill the head (on the outside of the barrel) with hot water and leave it for at least thirty minutes. Repeat this process on the other side. Turn the barrel bung upside down, drain it, and let it cool. Once drained, fill it with cold water to test that the staves are properly sealed. If it leaks let it sit until it is sealed. Let the water sit for 24 hours just to be sure everything is swollen. If, after 24 hours, the barrel is still leaking, repeat the hot water soak, fill with cool water, and let sit for another 24 hours. Repeat this process until there are no leaks.

Using the Barrel

Barrel Aging a BeerNow that you’ve got your clean barrel, it’s time to get to using it. Make your beer as you normally would, set your barrel where you’d like to be aging it (as you can imagine, a full barrel is quite heavy), and begin racking. Do so gently, you don’t want to oxidize your beer. Fill the barrel as much as you can, the less room for oxygen the better. Once you’re finished, place a bung with an airlock in the barrel and start waiting. I recommend an airlock because, after the movement, there may be some revitalized yeast in suspension or co2 may settle out of the solution. Air locks are safe (don’t forget to check the liquid levels so they don’t go dry).

Over time, evaporation will occur, the “angels’ share”. Every two months, be sure to “top up” you barrel (with your beer) to replace the missing beer.

Ideally, you want to store your barrel at about 55°F with about 64%-75% humidity. Depending on the size of your barrel and the tastes you’d like, the aging time will vary. One solution is to install a Vinnie Nail on your barrel to take samples as the beer progresses. A good rule of thumb for a five gallon barrel is about 170 days, and 365 days for a 55 gallon.

Once the beer is ready, go ahead and bottle or keg as you normally would. Either rack a new beer directly into the barrel, or plan to clean and store the barrel as needed.

Conclusion

Sure, it takes up space, and of course it takes a lot of time. But barrel aging has quickly become a staple in the “craft” part of the homebrewing hobby. It is a wonderful way to add some complexity to your beer, not to mention the romantic angle of your “barrel-aged” brew. Experiment with the process and see what works for you!

written by Matt

Have you enjoyed reading this article? Don't miss new articles and exclusive offers by signing up to our newsletter. If you have any questions or thoughts on "Got Wood? An Introduction to Barrel Aging", let us know in the comments below!

Leave a Comment

Deal of the Day

Sorry, but today's deal has already sold out. Please check back tomorrow.