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How to properly use oak wood chips for home brewing


Aging beer in oak barrels is long standing practice for making beer. This is because the characteristics of the wood impart into the beer which can add to the drink-ability of the beer.

There's a reason why brewers seek out new ways to make beer taste better and that's because for them, the old days of getting smashed on Budweiser are done.

They constantly want to expert, try new ideas and just make better beers.

Using wood while conditioning or aging beer can impart a range of aromas to the beer, including floral, vanilla, caramel, or coconut tones. While it depends on the type of wood as to what happens, Oak is the generally the preferred kind of wood as it produces vanilla.

All that might sound like some kind of fancy wine snob speaking at a tasting session, but that vanilla thing is true!

I don't have any spare oak barrels lying around to use, so how can a small time home brewer use wood to their improve their brewing results?

Wood chips. 

That's the short of it. You can use oak wood chips by simply adding them to the wort. 

However, it's not that simple. There's some choices to make as to how you oak your beer and for how long and for what kind of beer. 

Let's explore the ins and outs of oaking homebrew. 

First of all, we should consider this question:

What kind of beer suits wood chips?


You can probably oak any beer you like but through the experiences of many other pioneering brewers it has been generally settled that English and some Scotch ales such as Old Ales, stouts, porters, browns, IPAs and some bitters benefit from going through this process.

That's not a finite grouping of beers though.

Brewers have been known to successfully uses oak in styles such as the darker Belgian ales, Farmhouse Ale, or even Saison.

And let's be frank so of the current generation of craft brewers are trying all kinds of combos and methods to make their mark on the world, so backyard brewers should explore and experiment as much as they dare!

There's also the theory the higher the ABV, the better result oaking will have.


This working theory is usually in reference to beers that are being aged in wooden oak barrels. It is considered that the alcohol serves to ensure a healthy environment in which the beer ages, free of those pesky bugs that can infect and ruin a beer.

If you are going to invest time and money in a barrel, you don't want to wait six months or a year to find your beer has gone off!   

High alcohol beers are also often sweet so an oakey vanilla tone can help counter that. 

What are the best kind of wood chips to use with the wort?


Not all oak chips are created equal

Oak usually comes in three varieties, American, Hungarian, and French. The American oak gives the strongest oak flavor, while French oak gives subtler notes with other sweeter flavors like vanilla.

Hungarian oak is considered in the middle between these two extremes.

There use depends on what types of beers you are making and what you’re going for with them.

One more thing about the kind of wood - charring. When oaks barrels are used for making bourbon the inside is charred as strangely this helps with aging. 

Different amounts of charting will have different effects on your beer. The more charred or burnt your wood is, the more strong the flavours and smells that are imparted into the beer. 

So a rough guide to this is..... add more here !!!!!!!

Should I use wood chips or cubes or spirals?


Instead of using an actual oak barrel, these three options are handy methods for a homebrewer to add wood flavor and aroma to ‘barrel age’ their beer.

Your local homebrew store may have all three readily available on hand but Amazon will see you right too.

Using chips


Wood chips are essentially shards of wood that you add to your fermenter or secondary in order to achieve the level of barrel flavor you desire.

Wood chips are probably going to float and that means a lot of oak will be making contact with the air in the fermenter and not imparting oaking goodness into the beer.

So a handy tip is to place place the chips into a clean & sterile hop bag and then weigh the bag down with something heavy and inert such as a glass marble or three.

Make sure the marbles are sterilized!

It's a really good idea to do this as picking stray oak chips out of your tubing or bottling wand will be a pain in the ass.

Wood cubes


Wood cubes are exactly as they sound  are cubes of wood (approximately ¼-½”in size). They will sink, won't get stuck in your tubing and many brewers prefer to use cubes over chips because the amount of surface area to beer ratio is easier to determine on a cube than a chip.

Not that it's really a big deal.

Spirals


Spirals are also a great way to get a high surface to beer wort ratio happening.  If you are looking for a hassle free clean up, then like cubes, oak spirals could be what you want to use for your beer.

They are more expensive than chips however due to the time required to manufacture them than compared to putting some oak logs through a chipper!

Do I need to sterilize my wood chips ?


All brewers fear introducing anything into their brew but their are a few things you will most definitely need to consider doing to ensure the health of your brew.

Here’s a summary of different approaches for adding bits of wood to beer:
  • The do nothing approach,  just pitch your chips in and see what happens.
  • Boil the chips in water to make a tea, then add the tea to the wort.
  • Soak the chips in spirit like rum or vodka for at least a day, and add it all to the beer. The strong alcohol content in the booze will kill off any microbes present in the wood. 
  • Use a pressure cooker to cook them
  • Sanitize wood with chemicals such as campden tablet solution (we don't recommend this method as you'd likely be transferring the solution you made (potassium metabisulfite) into your wort as the wood absorbs it

How much oak chips should I add to my wort?


The amount of chips to use is not an exact science. I've seen recommendations that range from 10-60 grams per 5 gallons.

Remember this is largely to taste - especially if you are using the tea making method.

We would however recommend you start light and add more as you get more experienced and learn the effect of whatever form of oak you are using.

Soaking wood chips in bourbon


You could be forgiven for wondering why the spirit of bourbon is suddenly being mentioned.

Brewers have discovered that if you are going to age beer in oak barrels, then those that have been previously used to age bourbon do a wonderful job.

The idea then is that if you soak your oak wood chips in bourbon, you're going to somewhat re-create the effect of a good old fashion barrel soak.

We'd recommend that you soak your chips in bourbon for at the very least 24 hours.

As we noted above spirits in general also helps kill any bugs that could be present in the wood chips so using a good bourbon will ensure you do not accidentally infect your beer.

Making an oak tea


There are a few ways to add the oak flavor to your beer and making an oak tea is an easy way.

Simply boil the oak chips and make sure they are covered in an inch of water.

Once the tea is made, add a bit of the water to your beer in the fermenter and then taste it. Continue to add the oak tea until you reach the flavor you’re looking for.

Making a tea is much faster than aging with oak, and also lets you more closely control the flavor.

The boiled tea will also be sterile.

Speaking of tea - did you know you can make hops tea for brewing?

How long do I leave the wood chips in the fermenter?


Chips impart flavour pretty quickly, and usually 7-10 days in fermenter is about as long many brewers go before the effect on the beer becomes overpowering.

Taste tests along the way will help as it all comes down to a matter of taste! 

If you've put your chips or cubes in a bag, they'll be easy to remove with a clean pair of tongs.

Just like a good cook doesn't over egg the pudding, the discerning home brew should not over oak the beer. Too much oak doesn’t allow for complex flavors to emerge in your brew before an overwhelming wood flavor takes over the batch.

So, timings wise, if you know you are going to bottle you beer in a week, then add the chips seven days before you intend to bottle.

How can I tell the difference between and oaked an unoaked beer?


Generally comparing beer that has been oaked to one that hasn’t will show subtle variations.

A beer that has been properly oaked beer will often have what can be described as a having a smooth backbone and after taste.

If the oak has been toasted just right, you might get some of those vanilla notes we mentioned above.

Can you re-use oak chips?


The question is can one re-use the wood chips? Can I just dry them out and store them until the next time?

We've read that beer makers often just leave them to sit on a paper towel to dry, then into storage in something like a mason jar.

Make sure they are thoroughly dry though as any moisture could help microbes or mould etc thrive.

We imagine that the more you re-use chips, the qualities they possess will reduce. 

I found this totally pro tip which I'll share as found:

"I keep a 1.75 LT bottle of Jim Beam half full with bourbon and the rest with medium toast French oak chips so they are always soaking up that great flavor to add to bourbon stouts. The chips pick up a lot of the great bourbon flavor and stay sanitized due to the high alcohol."

So for that brewer, they don't really care about how long they soak their chips in bourbon!

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