Choosing the Right Oak Barrels For Your Homebrew
Oak barrels and the alcohol industry share an intimate bond since a long, long time ago.
Back in the early wine history, the amphora was the vessel of choice for anyone looking to store and transport wine. The use of oak has been widespread in winemaking for at least the last 2,000 years.
Its first rise to being an industry-standard came during the time of the Roman Empire. By then, winemakers discovered that, beyond just storage convenience, the wine kept in oak barrels took on qualities that improved it by making it smoother and, in some cases, better-tasting.
And perhaps we’ve nearly forgotten the need for casks for keeping and moving wine, yet we’ve come to acquire a taste for it. Oak kegs are an important part of today winemaking (and liquor in general).
What are Oak Barrels?
Oak is useful in winemaking for modifying the color, flavor, tannin profile and texture of the wine. They’re more prominent during the aging stage, but it’s common to see wine added to them during fermentation. Oak casks can impart other properties to wine through evaporation and low-level exposure to oxygen.
Winemakers have used oak barrels for ages. Barrels allow small amounts of oxygen in to help mature the wine, while compounds in the wood give the wine composition and flavor. Oak varieties impart different characteristics for varying levels of wood toasting.
Right now, several producers are looking for cheaper and more efficient options to expensive kegs. The most common are oak chips or sticks that can float in vats of wine.
Interestingly, most of the world’s most excellent wines ferment and mature in oak casks.
The casks create intimate contact between the wine and the yeasts that brings fermentation. As sugar gets transformed into alcohol, those yeasts die, sinking to the bottom of the keg to form a layer of lees.
They scavenge oxygen, protecting the wine through fermentation and maturation.
Why do you need an Oak Barrel?
An oak barrel is a great choice if you love whiskey. Here is why.
- Control oxidation.
The porous nature of an oak barrel lets evaporation and oxygenation to occur in wine but usually not at levels that would cause oxidation or spoilage.
After some years of use, new oak becomes “neutral,” and no longer imparts flavor or tannin to the wine. These neutral casks still permit for slow oxygenation, so they can be used to age wine that needs to mellow without any oak flavor.
- They add to the flavor.
Oak barrels are constructed from staves, which are long pieces of oak wood that are fitted tightly together with metal hoops. They get toasted over a fire to get a light, medium, or dark toast level. New kegs with a light toast will give lots of vanilla and caramel notes, while a darker toast will give smoky, roasted aromas.
For oak wine casks, the cask’s age and size affect the amount of oak flavor that will be transmitted to the wine. Smaller kegs impart more oak flavor because they allow more contact between the wood and the wine.
Oak barrels lose their signature flavor compounds with use, so one must replace them if the desire is to keep the oak notes in the wine.
- Gives you a Chance to Experiment
The ambient humidity tends to change the properties of the kegs. Drier conditions make them evaporate more water, strengthening the spirit. But in higher humidity, more alcohol than water will evaporate, therefore reducing the alcoholic strength of the product.
The casks are willing to be more or less porous, depending on the wood. More porous woods permit more of the product to be absorbed. Humid conditions make the keg absorb that humidity, resulting in less product to be consumed.
If an ageing barrel stores some other product, the residue in the wood would then be transferred into the new product. Sometimes, this can give finishing characteristics that are appreciated by the cask user.
Parts of the liquid that has been absorbed into the wood may also be reclaimed, e.g., by rinsing or steaming the kegs.
Oak Barrels Characteristics
Oak offers three significant contributions to wine:
- Adds flavor compounds, including aromas of vanilla, clove, smoke and coconut.
- Smoothens the addition flow of oxygen—a process which makes the wine taste smoother and less astringent.
- Offers a suitable environment for specific metabolic reactions to occur (specifically Malolactic Fermentation); it makes wines feel creamier.
Unlike beer, wine does not allow flavor additives (i.e. coriander, orange peel, etc.). Thus, oak has become an accepted way to alter the taste of wine. When added to wine, oak flavors combine with wine flavors to create a wide variety of new potential characters.
They add complexity to your drink.
When stored in an oak barrel, the wine passes through several chemical processes with the keg—resulting in a more durable and stable wine with a more full-bodied, complex and concentrated feel. Color, for example, becomes more intense.
The cask carries hundreds of different substances to the wine. Some of the most essential is tannin, sugar and vanilla aromas.
Sometimes, the real reason behind the taste of some of the best wines in the world is the keg. That’s why oak barrels enjoy a great reputation and respect among wine makers; even old oak barrels are paramount for many wines.
They provide just enough oxygen.
The cask permits for slowly controlled oxygenation (not oxidation) of the wine, which helps to give a more mature wine. The oxygenation passes both through the surface of the wood and through the bung.
When wine is kept in a cask, there is persistent gradual evaporation, while at the same time, the wood absorbs the wine. Therefore, the keg needs to be constantly refilled with the wine. This method also provides oxygenation for the wine. Due to the evaporation of water and alcohol, the wine gets more concentrated, and the fresh and raw fruit flavor becomes softer.
In red winemaking, for example, oak barrels are central to what the French call élevage: the art of ‘raising’ or maturing wine to prepare it for the time of bottling.
The main factor to élevage is in a wine’s relationship with oxygen; exposure to just the right amount intensifies the color and softens hard tannins.
The objective of a traditional élevage is to work with oxygen to civilize and refine a wine’s structure.
At the same time, it helps to open and develop its aromatics.
If the winemaker needs it, the degree of oxygenation can be added by getting the wine from one cask to another; this process is called “racking”.
Factors to consider before buying one
So, how do you find an oak barrel that meets your needs? Here is what you should be looking for.
a. Volume capacity.
The most common kegs are the Bordeaux type, which holds 225 liters (59 US gal), followed by the Burgundy style cask, which contains 228 liters (60 US gal). Some winemakers are now also using the larger hogshead 300-liter (79 US gal) keg. Larger kegs are also used as a tradition in parts of Italy such as Barolo as well as the south of France.
The size of the cask plays a significant role in the final the effects of oak on the wine by directing the ratio of surface-area-to-wine-volume with smaller containers having a more considerable impact.
c. How long do they last?
Oak barrels suffer alterations in their physical properties as time passes and more wine goes through them. Older casks give different results than younger ones, so it’s important to know how fast this process occurs before buying one. If you don’t pay attention to this aspect, you run the risk of each batch tasting different when you don’t want.
d. Where can you place it?
For best results, always keep your keg indoors at a moderate temperature. Houses that are heated too high cause more evaporation than usual.
The Best Oak Barrels for Homebrewing Beer
Wondering what are the best choices for you when it comes to picking out an oak barrel? Here is what everyone else is buying, and what makes them a great choice for you too.
5-Liter American Oak Aging Barrel by Sofia’s Findings
This oak wooden barrel is American and handcrafted. Its interior is moderately charred with black steel hoops and laser engraving on the outside. It holds 5 liters, and it’s perfect for aging multiple spirits. You can use it for wine, but it’s also great for whiskey, beer, tequila, and honey. Some people prefer to use it as home décor since it’s medium-sized.
The keg will age liquor for the equivalent of one year in only 80 days. Its exterior is completely lacquer finished. Meaning that it has been altered and disqualifies it from bourbon-making (considered an additive).
You should know it will not seal immediately (no cask will). The wood needs time to absorb the water and expand.
When buying it, you must consider that image variations can happen because it’s handmade crafted.
This one’s kind of long, at around 11.25 inch in length from the spigot to rear of the barrel. The width of the barrel at the belly is long too, at around 7.75 inches.
The craftsmanship is outstanding. It has a varnish or some coating on it which makes it look great. It’s even great for home decoration. The bung and valve are both properly made and suffer no leaks. The cask and bands are really well-made.
You cannot seal it right away as some expect, thereby presenting some volatility.
3-Liter American Oak Aging Barrel by Sofia’s Findings
It is a heavy-duty barrel made of white oak wood. Handcrafted in America. The exterior is varnished and the interior is medium charred to release the natural flavor and scent of the wood into the aging beverage.
The hoops are made from black steel. It’s perfect for aging different spirits like whiskey, rum, tequila, wine, and vinegar. It also works as home decoration. It works to seal up to 3 liters.
Many other oak barrels today hover around the 10” in length from the spigot to rear of the barrel, and this one from American Oak is no different. The width at the belly though is a bit longer than some of the others we reviewed, at around 7”.
The keg will stop leaking after a few days of use. An important issue about small aging casks is that they use to be also a decorative item. It seals great, and it’s nice and tight.
The cask is great. It comes with an elaborate sealing procedure.
If you’re looking for the famous oak flavor that everyone loves, you’ll find this one perfect for your needs.
The black ink of the hoops tends to melt a little causing a spot on the bottom. Likewise, the stand holds the cask fine, but it is slightly off.
Wood is thinner than other kegs, and it may come stained. It feels a bit cheap because of that.
American Oak Aging Barrel
Another completely handmade American white oak barrel, it’s perfect for virtually all alcoholic beverages you can age, from whiskey to tequila. If you don’t need it for brewing, you can use it as a decoration item for your home.
It’s aesthetic to look at, and each one is unique! The color and look of the cask are slightly different for each since it’s handmade.
It’s tall too – at around 8.5” from the spigot to rear of the barrel. Plus, from the top of bung to the countertop it’s around 8 inch more as well, while the belly width is around 5.75 inch.
Wood is thick and sealed up in one-and-a-half days. It comes with its cleaning kit, a stand, bung plug, and spigot. The price is reasonable compared to other kegs.
A two-liter keg is surprisingly small, but the smaller casks actually yield a faster aging process due to the higher ratio of surface area to liquid than a larger cask.
The oaky flavor it gives whiskey is fantastic. It seems to age about ten times faster than a normal keg would, so 12 weeks of aging is the equivalent of nearly a year.
Some users have reported that the wooden bung (stopper) doesn’t work very well. The cork lining around it may become damaged.
American Oak Whiskey Aging Barrel by American Oak Barrel
These kegs are great for home use or commercial applications. The heavy-duty American oak wood is charred on the inside to perfection, slowly releasing the wood’s natural flavors and smells into your beverage of choice, whether it be wine, whiskey, other spirits or even non-alcoholic such as seltzers and sodas. It’s satisfying to watch the craftsmanship and monogrammed lettering on your cask.
It’s beautifully engraved and cleverly crafted from New (not recovered) American white oak; it features a medium toast for charred aging. The keg can be used repeatedly for up to 8 years.
Liquors can age 10 times faster: in this case, “smaller is better”. Reducing the size increases the volume-to-surface ratio. It’s simple to use; just fill it with your favorite spirit and age to your liking. Lastly, serve from the functional spigot.
The handcrafted American white oak is cut and fitted precisely around two equal heads of oak and perfectly bound by six hoops of steel.
The longer spirits age, the smoother, refined or mature they become. Thankfully, it’s easier to do so with small kegs like this one.
The wood – of high quality – comes with everything you may need down to instructions for people with little experience.
It includes two funnels and a cleaning tab if you chose to switch spirit types between aging. It only needs a three-day soak, and it’s very sturdy and attractive: from the beautiful color of the wood and rims and fonts of labels.
Some holes are drilled after the cask is constructed, so there’s a ton of wood splinters inside the barrel which can be a tad bit hard to remove. However, this issue is common when purchasing handcrafted kegs.
Some liquors can stay in the cask for weeks, and five days of cleaning may not be enough, and you end up with a weird mixture in your product.
Custom Engraved American Premium Oak Barrel
Hit keg, made from American Oak, offers custom engraving for gifts and special occasions. Simple by design & rich in culture, it’s a piece of American history that will be proudly displayed for family & friends for several years to come.
You can have the spirit inside a custom oak barrel with your name on it. You can use it as simple decoration, or you can have the spirits poured from it.
The crafter engraves your name or whatever you want with laser on the American white oak. The steel hops are black with a medium grain interior. The keg holds two liters, which is perfect for fast aging.
You can use it to age wine, tequila, rum, and even vinegar.
It’s a great gift, and if you follow the instructions, it does not leak. It’s much smaller than you think, so you won’t have issues placing it.
You can smell the wood, and the engraving is beautiful. And no, it’s not just printed. It’s engraved into the wood to look better.
Overall great cask, but for the price, you would expect a little more luxurious feel.
Following instructions to run water over the outside can cause the finish to fade, something you may be worried about
Only about two oak barrels can be created per oak tree, which takes several decades to grow. Plus, the process of coopering the wood into casks takes great skill.
As such, getting an oak barrel for your spirits is something not everyone does. They provide a great experience regardless of how you use them. You can have them as simple decoration; this is excellent since almost all kegs are handcrafted and customized.
Nevertheless, they’re completely functional: you can pour any spirit and age it in a comfortable and small keg.
Having one at any family gathering or social event is a great way to give it a unique look. You can have them custom-made for special occasions, or you can give someone a very special gift.
If you use it to age your spirits, you’ll have more than an attractive container for dispensing them. They offer unique properties and notes to all the liquids they store.
Upon buying an oak barrel, consider the function, the size, the finishing, and even the purpose before even thinking about the price. The amount of money you pay will surely be equivalent to the quality of the product you’ll be receiving, and this is an investment that will last for quite a long time.