Homebrewing with Exotic Woods

Aging beer is not incredibly common, but is done by many craft brewers to add some extra flavor. A lot of times the barrels used by brewers have previously held other alcoholic cargo–bourbon, whisky, brandy, and even wine. And the flavor of the previous contents definitely comes through in the beer, making it even more unique and memorable.

Aging beer in wooden barrels is beyond the reach of most homebrewers since the barrels hold around 60 gallons–more than the average homebrew batch. So we must resort to things like toasted oak chips. These are actually from the home winemaking world, where you can drop them into a red wine to achieve that oaked flavor.

Now the toasted oak chips you can buy at your homebrewing supply shop are just that–toasted oak. If you want to simulate toasted-oak-chips-from-a-previously-used-bourbon-barrel you need to take the extra step of soaking the chips in bourbon before adding them to the beer! I tried this with my Fig-Cherry Barleywine, which is set to be uncorked on Thanksgiving and will warrant a separate report.

However there is another question to ask here: why does everyone use oak? Well that’s what the winemakers and distillers use, but there are plenty of other woods out there. Dogfishhead released a beer called Palo Santo Marron which was aged in Palo Santo, a peruvian wood. But certainly there must be other types of woods that can be used as well!

Now because I’m a homebrewer I’m not able to use barrels, but I can use chips. This is one place where the homebrewer is at an advantage, since there are many varieties of wood chips available for outdoor smoking. Not just oak, but a wide variety of delectable flavors. After some searching online I discovered that others have tried this with some success, although it’s not too widespread. So I found myself a good sampler pack of 10 woods from Maine Grilling Woods:

  1. Wild Apple
  2. Black Cherry
  3. Sugar Maple
  4. DownEast Hickory
  5. Northern Nutwood
  6. Northern White Cedar
  7. Golden Alder
  8. Mountain Mesquite
  9. North Atlantic Olive
  10. Acadian Oak

oakFor just $20 shipped, this included about 8oz of each, enough for 20-40gal of beer each, or 200-400 gal total! So that’s a great deal for something that should be quite unique!

The next step is to see what these taste like. To do that we’ll test out how to toast them (simply the toaster oven? or the grill? or a brulee torch?), and then age bourbon over them for a couple of weeks.

Now you may be asking yourself at this point whether this is toxic. Good question. All grilled/toasted food is carcinogenic to some extent, but are these any more dangerous? You can also by planks of these woods on which food is grilled directly, so it can’t be incredibly toxic. Maybe alcohol will leech toxins from the wood? Hopefully not. It’s not all that much wood and alcohol so I’m not worried.

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8 Responses to Homebrewing with Exotic Woods

  1. Brandon says:

    Have you had a chance to experiment with any of these woods? I’m an experimental homebrewer also and would love to hear your experience with them if you have.

    • pinchaque says:

      I unfortunately have not yet had the chance to use them. My last batch of beer was Ginger IPA and went “unoaked’ as it were. But I’m looking to make a batch of porter next and will use one of the woods then and post about it. Thanks for reading!

  2. Dave Manley says:

    Also, there is the issue of using the wood “raw” or “smoked/toasted”. Are we adding wood to the beer, or smokng the malt prior to brewing? I have done a bit of brewing with various types of oak, from raw to several levels of toast, in form of chips, cubes, etc. I have not gone beyond oak however, but am interested in trying that. I have put together a presentation on home brewing with wood (primarily oak) and am happy to share, but I would be interested in hearing other homebrewers experiences in going beyond oak for home brewing.
    Dave Manley
    Jack Of All Brews Homebrewing Club
    Waconia, MN

    • pinchaque says:

      Thanks for the comments Dave. I’d definitely be interested in seeing the presentation. Whenever I’ve brewed with oak it’s been in the form of toasted oak chips from the homebrew shop, so I don’t have control over that aspect. Now with these grilling woods (all of which are raw) then I was just going to throw them in the toaster oven to get a medium toast. That’s what we did for the whiskey sample test and it was fairly simple to do.

      That’s cool there’s such interest in this. I did some searching around before I bought the chips to see what else was out there, and not much was. so I’m excited to test it out and post the results!

  3. Dave Manley says:

    I’m known as the “oak guy” in our club. Here’s a link to the presentation I did last November on brewing with oak. Pretty much all of my information came from published brewing articles, I can provide those as well, if anyone wants them.

    Click to access Beer%20&%20Wood.pdf

  4. Brandon says:

    Yeah I’d like to see those as well if you get a chance to post them. Or you can send them to me directly. Thanks again Dave.

  5. Dave says:

    Not sure how to send them to you directly, I don’t see an email listed, but I can tell you they are from the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Brew Your Own magazine and the May 2008 issue of All About Beer. You may be able to find these articles online on their websites. If not, give me an email address and I can send you pdf’s of the articles.

  6. Pingback: Testing Exotic Woods with Bourbon Whiskey « Pinchaque’s Great Adventure

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