October 25, 2011

Solera-style oaking?

Oak aging is all the rage in brewing. Everything gets oaked these days, even beers that normally need to be drank young. Harpoon last year released an oak-aged dunkelweizen; it was incredible but probable wasn't really "aged" because weizen beers lose a lot of their flavor quickly and this one had all the great flavors and aromas of a dunkelweizen but with delicious oak notes.

I think of oak as being used in two ways. One is oak aging: where beer is stored in oak barrel (or devices designed to mimic cask aging) to produce both the oak flavors and an aged flavor in the beer, such as sherry notes from slight oxidation, some acetic character, smoothing out of alcohol notes, etc. This sort of aging can run from months to years and depending upon the newness and quality of the barrel will produce different effects. On the other hand, oak (by chips, cubes, strips, dowels and so forth) can be added to the beer to produce only oak flavors and will produce those notes in a matter of a few days (if the oak is very new) to weeks or months (if the oak is a bit aged).

The two products produce different results in beer as a result of different processes involved. Neither is better than the other but you can't do one and get the effect of the other. A Flanders red might be oak aged in a way that creates both oak flavors and acetic character from access to small amounts of oxygen. That oak aged dunkelweizen had to have oak added to the beer to create oak flavors without losing the fresh wheat beer flavors (although I might be wrong -- large scale breweries can do different things than we can at the homebrew level; certainly as homebrewers to recreate this you would not barrel age).

One of the problems with using oak chips or cubes (especially chips) is that the first few times you use them you get a lot of woody flavor and it is very strong. Over time they mellow and create more barrel-like flavors. You can steam them or boil them to sanitize but also to draw out some of the harsher, young wood flavors. I've boiled chips for hours and still had a lot of wood taste overpowering the vanilla-like flavors normally perceived in oaked beers. This is a problem I set out to overcome.

Sometimes chips and cubes are soaked in various alcoholic beverages, from vodka to whisky to scotch to wine, in an effort to both sanitize the wood and bring some of the flavor from the alcohol into the beer. This is very common with sours, trying to mimic the effect of barrel aging in wine barrels, to beers aged in bourbon barrels. This works well for its intended effect but typically doesn't help with the woody flavors, since people tend to let the oak sit for a week or two. As a side note, one thing I have had good success with is soaking oak chips in liquor or wine and then adding it back to the main bottle it came from to create complexity in the parent beverage. A cheap, jug chardonnay will improve dramatically with some oaking, as will a cheap scotch or whisky. It won't make it a $100 bottle but it will add a few dollars. It's a good way to let the alcohol pull out some of the oak flavor and woody flavor and pass it on to a liquid that might sit for a while and help the woody notes dissipate so it is less noticeable.

Another risk of adding chips and cubes, especially chips, is that it is so easy to over oak a beer. If you over oak, especially with young oak that has a lot of woody notes, you can be forced to wait months for the oak and wood notes to mellow. Even then you may not get rid of the woody character. This is typically less of a problem with sours that get aged for months or years on the oak but it could be a real problem for that oaked IPA you're trying to make.

So my goal was to create a way to:
  • add oak to beer without getting the woody character
  • add oak to beer with a more mellow, aged flavor
  • control the amount of oak addition
  • be awesome.
Given my interest in solera-style brewing (see the lambic solera process) I thought about how that might be used to accomplish my goal. I've created an oaking solera. I took some oak chips and boiled them for about an hour, draining the water and adding fresh water, to get rid of some of the woody character. I then added vodka to both sanitize and draw out the flavor and color of the oak. I will let the vodka sit, causing a mellowing of the flavor, and add just the vodka to brews as necessary to create the oak flavor. I can let the oak sit essentially forever, pulling off what I need and adding fresh vodka as I use it. If the oak flavor gets too mild, I just add a little more oak. By letting it age in storage over time I get the effect of long term aging without tying up a beer to get it done. It won't quite give the same flavor as oak aging but closer than adding fresh oak. (I could always add a hint of sherry to get that slightly oxidized flavor.)

The benefit of separating the oak and having it always available is two-fold. First, I have less of a risk of over-oaking because I can add, taste and repeat until it reaches the desired point. Second, I can add oak in the bottling bucket, or even individual bottles, to create a batch of beer that is partially oaked and partially un-oaked for greater variety.

One concern is whether adding vodka will just result in boozy beers. My hope and expectation is that the oak will be concentrated enough that it will only take a few drops per bottle to create sufficient flavor. If not then I might have to rethink the applicability of this approach. Possibly giving the vodka a quick boil to drive off the alcohol will produce the flavor without the booze. That's something I'll have to test when the time comes.

Of course, these are my expected results. I just started this and have not yet tried the end result, although I intend on making an addition to a mead I have aging very soon. I want to give the oak a little time to lose the woody character. So I guess once I have some opportunities to experiment with this I'll report back the results.

October 20, 2011

Pumpkin beer tasting

After roughly six weeks between fermenter and bottle conditioning it was time to taste my pumpkin beer. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. It's a somewhat bland beer. The spicing was fairly weak, as was the pumpkin flavor. For a first go, I can't be too mad. It's not a bad beer, just kind of bland. I will probably experiment with adding some spice blends in the glass to see if I can improve upon it. That way I can have a better recipe for next year. In addition to upping the spice, I think I would like to add a little roasted barley to get some roasty flavor and probably use real pumpkin instead of the canned stuff.

Oh well. It was a good learning opportunity. Not every recipe can be a knock out. My wife likes it so I'll let her drink the vast majority of the beer. I'll sample enough from her beers to try to get a good spice complex.

October 14, 2011

Monacle - Wee Heavy/Scotch Ale

I feel as though I have neglected my poor blog after having gone almost three weeks without a post. Part of that is just due to the busy nature of this school semester. Part of it is because it's been a while since I brewed so I don't have anything new to offer. I do, however, have some older recipes I meant to post but didn't for whatever reasons. So here's a recipe I crafted last winter and brewed in February during the massive snow storms we had.

Scotch ales are delicious beers with a solid alcohol presence and a big, bold malt flavor. If you think of Scottish beers like Belgian beers, scotch ale (sometimes referred to as wee heavy) is like quads/dark strong ale. It is the highest alcohol and boldest flavor. That doesn't mean that a scotch ale should burn going down. The malty backbone should provide a sweet and complex flavor that is aided by the warmth of the alcohol. Because these beers are 7% or more they are good beers for aging and often because of how strong they are, they need to be aged. It's a style that doesn't need oak or barrel aging but develops nicely with it.

There is a lot of debate over whether scotch ales need a smoke element to the flavor. Some people think they should include peat malt, which lends a very distinct smoke flavor. Others think no smoked malt should be used but a good scottish yeast strain should create smokey phenols. Still others prefer no smoke flavor at all. Commercial scotch ales, like scotch, range from very smokey to no smoke at all. It's just a question of preference. Personally, I like enough smoke to make the flavor interesting (but more smoke in my scotch) but not overpowering. I find adding a little smoked malt adds that flavor without being offsetting. If you want smoke flavor but don't want to buy an entirely new strain of yeast for one beer I would recommend, as I do here, using a little smoked malt and fermenting with a neutral strain. Although English beers are known for their esters and diacetyl, scottish beers should be neutral or phenolic.

It is also very common of this style to see the first runnings boiled down to a syrup to create caramelization and then sparge additional water to produce the appropriate boil volume. I chose not to do that here and instead opted for a triple decoction mash, which produces similar effects but should offer improved mouthfeel. If you want to boil down first runnings you may want to substitute crystal malt or carapils to make for a thicker beer.


This recipe is for a lighter alcohol scotch ale. It is easily adjusted up if you prefer a stronger brew. It is also a one gallon recipe, so scale as necessary.

ABV: 7.68%
SRM: 16.8
OG: 1.085
FG: 1.026

Grain bill:

2.5lb Maris Otter
4 oz Munich
2 oz Amber Malt (may substitute appropriate lovibond crystal malt)
1 oz Roasted Barley
1 oz Smoked Malt

Triple Decoction mash at 122/148/158 (alternatively you could boil down your first runnings to create caramelization and then add water back to boil volume)

Boil volume: 1.14gal

Boil additions (60 min boil):
.45oz Fuggles 4.5 AA at 60 min
.07oz Fuggles 4.5 AA at 15 min
.15 tsp Irish moss at 10 min

Ferment 4 weeks with 1338

I will probably tweak this recipe before I brew it next to improve mouthfeel. I might also try boiling down the first runnings. Anyway, it's a good solid recipe. If you decide to make a scotch ale, I do recommend brewing more than a gallon because you'll want to age some of it and one gallon just doesn't cut it. I've drank about half of the batch and I'm trying to ration out the rest because it's tasty (and I'm trying to cut back on how much I drink) and I want to see how it improves over time.