Oak in Brewing

by Al Korzonas

Alan writes in The Homebrew Digest:
>Hi All, I have lately become enamored of a certain red wine that,
>according to my wine-knowledgeable friends, has a strong oak character.
>This of course immediately led me to ponder what oak could do for my beer.
>I've seen oak chips for sale but haven't the foggiest idea how best to use
>them so am asking the collective for advice and any experiences they'd
>care to relate concerning the use of oak in beer

Many authors mistakenly suggest that oak flavours are appropriate in IPAs, however, there are a number of reasons that I feel that they are not appropriate:

1. they used European oak as opposed to American oak (which is far more "oaky") to make the casks... there are a number of old English brewing books that specifically say to NOT use American Oak for casks because it imparts a flavour to the beer,

2. even storing beer in European oak will impart some oaky flavour, but this takes a long time (see below) and according to Tom Thomlinson in Brewing Techniques, the trip was about 3 months from England to India... not long enough,

3. the oakiness of any cask will fade with use (see below)... if you were sending a cask to India with little hope of getting it back, would you use a brand new one or one that has been well-used?

4. some casks were lined with brewer's pitch which would completely isolate the beer from the wood. Although, of the modern English brewers that I know of (e.g. Samuel Smith's) who use oak casks for dispensing some of their beers, NONE of them line the casks with pitch. I've tasted only Samuel Smith's "from the wood" and it was not oaky, even at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London (far from Tadcaster).

Also, change the para on Schneider, the beer hall is called Weisses Brauhaus, is at Tal 10 (just outside the Tal gate, near Marienplatz) and when I was there, they only had the Dunkel vom Holzfass, not the Pils... this comes on-line at 4pm every day, not just Fridays.

I did have one other beer "from the wood." At 4pm every afternoon, the Weisses Brauhaus, the beerhall associated with the Schneider brewery (famous for its Weizen and Weizenbock) taps wooden casks of Pilsner and Dunkel. When I was there, they only had the Dunkel. Ask for "Pils vom Holzfass" and "Dunkel vom Holzfass." The texture of the beer was different than their regular Dunkel, but it had no oakiness.

On the other hand, brewers of Flanders Red Ales intentionally impart oaky flavour to their beer... Rodenbach Grand Cru is stored in huge oak tuns (thousands of liters) for up to 18 months, until it gains an oaky flavour and aroma. Every two batches, the tuns are disassembled and a fine layer of oak is scraped of the inside of each stave to increase the flavour effect. Regular Rodenbach is a blend of Grand Cru and a much younger beer, so the oakiness is not nearly as noticeable.

Many years ago, although I don't think it is available "oaked" anymore, Ballentine's fell pray to that notion that traditional English IPAs were oaky and so when they made theirs, they added a special "conditioning" stage in which they stored the Ballentine's IPA in American oak casks for a short time... just long enough to get some oak flavour (this can be a few days with a new American oak cask).

My tone above may imply that I'm anti-oak. On the contrary... I'm only against the adding of oak flavour to IPAs WITH THE INTENT OF MAKING THEM MORE TRADITIONAL. Add oak flavour to any beer you like, but don't pretend that it's more traditional.

I am on the BJCP Beer Style Committee and one of the things I will be proposing is that we split the IPA subcategory into "Traditional English" and "American." I will propose that the American IPA be defined as one that is made with American hops and may have oak flavour/aroma (thanks to Ballentine's... just like acetaldehyde, normally a fault, must be considered acceptable in an American Light Lager because Budweiser has a lot of it).

There is a recent microbrewed oak-aged beer... someone will post more on it... I believe it's called something like "Double Barrel." I've tried it. It doesn't pretend to be an IPA... it claims to be a beer aged in oak. I think it's a very intersting beer.

The jury is still out on where the oaky aroma/flavour in Lambics (Lambieks in Flemish) comes from storage in oak casks or whether it comes from some microbiota... I tend to believe that in most beers, it comes from the latter. This is because I have tasted Jim Liddil's excellent AHA National Competition Best of Show pGueuze and it had an oaky aroma, despite being fermented in plastic. Futhermore, if I recall correctly, Oud Beersel Geuze (Flemish spelling) also has an oaky aroma, although it is fermented entirely in CHESTNUT casks. I spoke with the brewmaster (Vandervelden ?) and he said he uses only chestnut casks to avoid any oakiness from the cask. Finally, as I mentioned above, with use, the oak loses its ability to impart flavour/aroma... some casks at Cantillon are over 100 years old, having had more than 30 batches of beer in them. Surely there would be no oakiness left in those casks.

>Any commercial examples of oaked beers worth seeking out?

Rodenbach Grand Cru is (in my opinion) the finest. Petrus (difficult to find) is also a Rodenbach Grand Cru-like Flanders Red Ale. Also, the aforementioned Double Barrel (if I got the name right) is worth a try. If you like oaky wines, by the way, many Chardonnays (my favourite type of wine) are quite oaky and need not as much aging as a good red wine (so a wine of similar quality will be cheaper and can be enjoyed sooner).

Copyright 1998 Al Korzonas
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