Emulating Bourbon Barrel Aging

If you love barrel aged beer like I do, you have probably thought about brewing a big beer and adding those wonderful barrel flavors to your beer. Aging your beer on wood will add some complexity to your beer and introduce some great new flavors.

Aging in a barrel is the most recognized way to get these flavors. Large wood barrels that were used in the distilling industry are very popular for re-use and aging beer. If you are member of a homebrew club or have a big brew capacity, you could get one of these barrels and age a beer in it, just like the pros. I found they are now available in all sizes from 5-80 gallons. But, it’s still an investment and they have a limited lifetime. The more times they are used, the less flavor you will instill in your beer and the higher chance the barrel will at some point get infected.

This is a 5 gallon bourbon barrel we picked up for about $100. We have already done a RIS and a Wee Heavy in it. Now, we have a barley wine aging in it.

There are a number of wood types and forms you can add with whiskey to get the barrel aged (BA) flavor that don’t require a big investment of cash or space. Basically, you want to add the wood and the whisky flavors to your beer without the barrel.

You can introduce the wood flavors by using different types of charred wood media (described in more detail below) that have been soaked in bourbon whiskey. Then, add the mixture to your beer, in the secondary fermenter. This will emulate the flavors of bourbon barrel aging.
Things that must be considered when aging your beer with wood:

· Type of wood and media

· Level of toasting

· Bourbon Soaking

· Length of time you want to/need to wait

Type of wood
The most popular types of wood used are French and American white oak.

French oak is denser and more mildly flavored. It is said to have sweet, spicy, and fruity flavors, like custard, butterscotch, or milk chocolate.

American oak has an aromatic sweetness along with a vanilla component. It can have roasted, dried fruit, and chocolate notes. American oak is the most popular for aging beer.

Wood media options
Okay, now that you have an idea of what wood type and you might want there are different forms of media you can get these wood chips or chunks. All of these forms will come in different levels of toasting. The toasting levels will affect the flavor of the beer. Toasting levels are discussed in greater detail below.

· Wood chips

· Wood cubes

· Wood spirals

· Wood staves

Wood chips
Wood chips are very thin flakes of wood, similar to what you may see in garden mulch. Since they are thin, and have a high surface area in contact with the beer, you will probably only need to age homebrew on wood chips for a couple weeks. Some say that wood chips don’t give beer the best wood flavor quality, but if you don’t have months to give to the aging process, chips will speed you the wood flavoring process.

Wood cubes
Cubes are similar to wood chips, except they are much thicker. Such cubes have different levels of toast across the rough surface of the wood. There is more charring at the surface level than in the grooves and grain of the wood. These levels of toasts can give more complex wood-aged character to your beer. This is one step closer to barreling beer, compared to wood chips. This option can take a month or longer. Use 1-2 oz of cubes for 5 gallons.

Wood spirals
A wood spiral is just what it sounds like. It looks like thick screw, about 8 inches long. Spirals have more surface area than cubes, with more variation in thickness and levels of toast. They are also great for adding more complex wood-aged qualities. This option can take six weeks or much longer. Use 1- 2 sticks per 5 gallons.

A stave is piece of wood from a used barrel. Since the stave has more uncharred wood in contact with the beer, it is not quite the same as a fully charred barrel. You can use the whole stave or chop it up into smaller pieces to fit into your fermenter. The more you chop it up, the more wood you will expose and the faster you instill wood flavor. This option can take a month to a year depending on the flavor you are looking to get.

Level of toasting
Once you have an idea of what kind of wood chips or chunks you want use, there are many options for the charring or toasting level of the wood media. Typically, the wood in barrels is “toasted or charred”, when the barrel is being assembled. This involves burning the wood to a specific level. How light or dark the wood is toasted will affect the character and flavor of the whiskey or beer. This will also apply to the wood media you will choose to use. You will need to choose the toasting level of the chips, cubes, or spirals to match the character you are trying to achieve.

· A light toast will give more fresh wood character with hints of fruit and coconut.

· A medium toast will have more vanilla, butterscotch, and caramel notes.

· A heavy toast will bring out more spicy and smoky wood character.

· Some oaks are even untoasted. Untoasted oak gives a big woody character very quickly!

The images below are wood chips that show light, medium and heavy toasted chips. Chips are also available now presoaked in whiskey. Use 1-2 oz for a 5 gallon batch.


You will be soaking the wood in whiskey. This is all the sanitizing you should need. The high percentage of alcohol will kill anything that may be living in the wood. If we were just oaking the beer, you would want to steam the wood to sanitize it.


Soaking your oak in bourbon is how you will introduce the character into your beer. Bourbon is the most popular liquor to add to your wood. But rum, Scotch, and tequila are picking up in popularity, too.

Soak your wood for two weeks in a few ounces of bourbon or whiskey in a jar. You may need more to cover larger pieces, like cut up staves. You don’t need an expensive bottle of bourbon. A cheaper variety will work fine. You are not drinking the bourbon. You are just adding the flavor of the bourbon. But if you have a favorite, go ahead and use it. My first attempt used a 750ml with most going into the fermenter. This was total overkill! It is very easy to overdo bourbons and whiskeys. So, less is more. Dump the whiskey before adding the oak to your beer.

Unlike commercial brewers, homebrewers can legally add whiskey to beer. If the flavor is not pronounced after a few weeks or a month of being on the oak, you can add a little more if you like. You can always add it, but you can’t take it out.

Aging – The length of time you want to/need to wait

Okay, this is the hard part. Waiting….

Much of this waiting will depend on the wood media you used and the amount of wood character you want. Chips are the fastest, but lack some of the character the cubes, spirals and staves. If you want more oak flavor, you need to let it sit longer. If I use chips, I taste it after a couple weeks. If I used cubes or spirals, I usually sample it once a month. I’ll sample it, until I get the right flavor balance I want. You can always add more bourbon to your fermenter, if you want more bourbon flavor.


by Ted Snarski
I am married with three college aged kids and live in the suburbs outside of Chicago. I’ve been brewing since 2011 with my brother-in-law and another group of friends. We do all-grain brewing and some partial mash brews. We started entering local homebrew competitions a few years ago and have even won a few medals. I have been a volunteer brewer at a local brewery outside of Chicago, where I have had a chance to brew both small special release batches and large batches on their 8 barrel system (toys I can’t afford). I have a background in electronics, software, engineering, and technical writing and generally love to tinker with things and figure out how they work. So, I love coming up with new brew projects and interesting recipes to brew.

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