Barrel-Aging Without the Barrel

Beer’s relationship with wood goes back hundreds of years, since it was the only reasonable option for bulk storage prior to the adoption of stainless steel. When we think about wood today, though, it’s almost always in the context of adding extra complexity to beer, especially high gravity ales.

At homebrew scale, true wood barrels are often far more trouble than they’re worth. They are expensive, require special care to prevent leaks, and aren’t always available in a convenient size. Wood also loses much of its character after a few uses, requiring longer contact times to impart the same amount of flavor. I don’t bother with barrels for these reasons, but I’ve settled on an alternate method that works well enough that it’s won multiple medals at state-level competitions.

It starts by purchasing a ¾ inch (2 cm) oak dowel rod from a hardware store. Ensure it is untreated wood. Cut it into ½ inch (1.2 cm) lengths. Depending on what kind of flavor you want from the wood, the next step is to toast it. This can be done by spreading the pieces on a baking sheet in the oven for 60 minutes (250°–500°F (121°–260°C), depending on the level of toast) or holding them over an open flame. Bourbon barrels are heavily charred on the inside before use, so if this is the effect you’re after, an open flame (outdoors!) is your best choice.

Spirit barrels, especially bourbon, are a popular choice for wood-aging beer, especially imperial stouts and barleywines. In Kentucky, bourbon is aged in the barrel within rickhouses. These are large, multi-story buildings that are not climate-controlled. They get hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Wood expands and contracts with changes in temperature. The bourbon seeps into the wood when it’s hot and is squeezed out when it’s cold. You can fake this on an accelerated timeline at home.

Put the wood into a glass jar with an airtight lid. Pour in enough bourbon to cover the wood. Every 12 hours, move it in and out of your freezer. I usually leave it on the counter overnight, then put it back in the freezer in the morning for the day. Do this for a week or two and the wood is ready to add to a fermenter. I’ve had success with 2–3 months of aging. You can reuse the wood, but as with barrels, it will take longer to get the same character in the next batch.


My Process: November 2018

When I started brewing five years ago, I started with extract. My first brew was actually at a brew-on-premises establishment. I made a full half barrel of a milk stout, yielding about six and a half cases of 12 oz bottles.

I thought it might be interesting over time to detail my process to remember how it changes. I won’t go into all the little things I’ve changed since I started, but this is a snapshot of how I do things in November 2018.

First off, I brew exclusively all-grain these days. It’s not that I dislike extract. I think it’s because I don’t feel like I’ve completely nailed my process yet, and I enjoy the challenge of figuring that out, plus the freedom to use whatever base grain(s) I want.

I typically buy exactly the grain I need at my local homebrew store and ask them to mill it for me. I almost always use White Labs liquid yeast and make a starter the night before brew day. The starter size varies according to BeerSmith’s recommendation, which factors in the OG of the beer and the age of the yeast packet.

Brew day starts with with collecting water and dosing it with some additions to tweak the sulfite to chloride ratio, depending on the style I’m making. I only add enough to bring the numbers in line for the mash water. The sparge water comes straight from my municipal supply, run through a carbon filter.

My mash tun is a 10 gallon Igloo cooler. I use a false bottom, although it’s probably not quite sized correctly, since I often find quite a lot of grain under it when I’m cleaning up, and stuck sparges are frustratingly common.

I boil just inside my garage in a 10 gallon MegaPot, heated by a Bayou “banjo” style propane stove. When it comes time to chill, I use a stainless steel immersion chiller hooked up to a garden hose. Depending on the time of year and the ground water temperature, I can go from boiling to mid-70’s ºF in anywhere from 20-30 minutes.

The kettle has a dip tube now instead of a bazooka filter, which not only makes clean-up easier, but also allows me to get more wort out of the kettle without moving it around and disturbing the settled trub at the bottom. I let gravity drain the kettle into the fermenter, then hit it with anywhere from 40-60 seconds of oxygen.

I recently bought an Ss Brewtech Brew Bucket fermenter after cracking a glass carboy. The Maduro clone is the first batch to use it, and so far I’m pretty happy. I bought the “brewmaster” edition with the thermowell and it’s been interesting to see the rise and fall of temperature during fermentation. I used to use a plastic Big Mouth Bubbler, but I’ve soured on it because the lid just won’t stay on. The silicone ring won’t make a grippy seal and vigorous fermentations have popped it off more than once, leaving krausen everywhere. I’ve also used carboys extensively, but they’re heavy and prone to breaking.

The last step is pitching the yeast. If I’m brewing in the summer months, I may stash the fermenter in the basement for a few hours to let it cool a bit more. I usually pitch around 70 ºF. It’s likely the next equipment purchase will be a small refrigerator so I can better control fermentation temperatures.

Once I determine fermentation is complete with refractometer readings a couple of days apart, I rack the beer into a keg, force carbonate at around 35 PSI for 24 hours, then reduce to serving pressure. It’s usually not fully carbonated yet, but it’s close enough and it stabilizes after a couple more days. I’ve been kegging for about a year and it greatly simplifies the packaging process. Cleaning the lines after each keg is a hassle, but not as much as cleaning and sanitizing a couple of cases of bottles. That said, if I’m brewing a big beer, I still bottle it, as I know I won’t drink it nearly as fast as something in the 4-6% range.

One of the “fun” things about this hobby is that there’s always something else to try. Off the top of my head:

A fermentation chamber, as mentioned above
A way to bottle off the keg, for competition submission
My chilling process feels very inefficient, especially in the summer
The data geek in me loves the idea of a Tilt hydrometer