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:
- Wild Apple
- Black Cherry
- Sugar Maple
- DownEast Hickory
- Northern Nutwood
- Northern White Cedar
- Golden Alder
- Mountain Mesquite
- North Atlantic Olive
- Acadian Oak
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.