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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Brewing With Oak

Avid homebrewer turned professional beersmith Adam Mills has agreed to let us republish the following post which first appeared on his blog, Those Who Can't Teach, Brew. This excites us for two reasons: (1) It's a great resource for the wood-curious; and (2) it introduces us to three oaked beers from soon-to-open Cranker's Brewery, where Adam is head brewer and which is currently under construction in Big Rapids, MI.

A variety of oak for sale at Siciliano's
By Adam Mills

I have finally started using a brewing technique that I have wanted to try for years, brewing with oak. It all started for me by listening to an amazing show on The Brewing Network. One of their shows, The Sunday Session, had Shea Comfort on as a guest to talk about wine yeast and oak in beer.

Shea is amazing. His knowledge of wine and oak is incredible. He lays out basic flavor and aroma expectations for oaked beers, oaking techniques, and information about the various types and toast levels of oak. Now I am finally putting that information to work. Click here to link to the interview with Shea. (Please note, adult language is used in these podcasts, use headphones if the kids are in the room). Also, do yourself a favor and check out this article on oak from the Brewing Network's Jason Petros, who has done a lot of work with oak and cacao nibs in beer. There is a ton of great info in these two sources.

You have a couple ways you can use oak in your beers, during fermentation and post fermentation. First, when you utilize oak in the ferment you lose some of the compounds that will be metabolized by the yeast, and oak aromatics will blow off with the vigor of fermentation. So why oak the ferment you ask? For body and structuring tanins. French and Hungarian oak especially lend slight notes of spice, roast coffee, and mild woodsyness, but these oaks in particular will lend a fullness and complexity to the body of the beer. Secondly, you can use oak after fermentation. This is where you will get the fullness of what oak can contribute to a beer: aromatics, flavors, and structuring tannins. You can mix and match these techniques to crate very unique beers.

Before adding oak to beers, this is how I handle it. I use one ounce of oak at a time. I put that ounce into a small microwaveable jar with 1/4 cup of water and microwave it until it just starts to boil, let it sit for a bit, then repeat. Do this with your container covered to effectively steam your cubes (I use cubes for the greater flavor complexity they offer over chips). Then they can be added to your fermenter or keg for aging. This steaming method also helps to extract flavors and aromas from the wood to jumpstart the oaking process, sort of like an instant infusion. You will see what I mean after you smell the container you steamed the oak in. Oak your beers to taste, usually shoot for one to two weeks. Please be patient with your oaked beers, and give them at least a few weeks to put themselves together after packaging. Your patience will be rewarded.

I did my only me second oaked beer just a few weeks ago, a batch of my Old Siberian Winter Warmer. As brewed for the first time as a pilot batch, it is like a slightly strong malt-forward english brown ale featuring American medium toast oak post fermentation. Early tastings of it have encouraged me to make my next two beers oaked as well.

Later this week I will be brewing my Fifth Voyage Coconut Porter. For this beer I will utilized medium toast Hungarian oak during fermentation. Again, the goal here is to capitalize on the positive structuring tannins that the Hungarian oak is good for, along with very minor flavor and aroma potential. I am using this as a way of fleshing out the complexity of my porter's body, in hopes of an interesting complex beer.

In short order after Fifth Voyage, I will be brewing Irish Breakfast, an oatmeal stout that will get fed oak at both stages, fermentation and post ferment. It is a standard oatmeal stout brewed to 4.7%. I like the idea of brewing low-gravity, high-flavor session ales. The first year of my homebrewing career was spent on these small beers; they can be wonderful. With Irish Breakfast I use a blend of oak, both French and American. I plan on using heavy toast French in the ferment to, again, bolster and add complexity to the body, and American medium toast to drive in some of the vanilla, caramel, and aromatic sweetness notes to the beer.

I will keep you up to date on the progress of these beers, and I hope that you would touch base with me about your own adventures into the world of brewing with oak.

Drink good beer with good people!

Stay tuned to The Buzz for more offerings from Adam. Or, get it straight from the source by checking out Adam's blog. (He is currently in the middle of an interesting series in which he documents a weekend trip to Belgium.) You can also follow @adammmills on Twitter.

This post originally appeared on Adam's blog on January 10, 2012.

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