January 2, 2019

Wake up and taste the oak: Experimenting with oak-aged beer

The mighty American oak tree.
In the early days, when beer was fermented and aged in wood barrels or casks, the presence of wood was felt in all brews.  That ended with the introduction of metal fermenters and tanks.  However, since about the 1980s, oak-aged beers are making a comeback as part of the craft beer movement.         

A few months ago, a friend of mine read on my blog that I was having trouble discerning the taste of wood in beer, and so he sent me some oak chips.

His name is Jeremy Sulzbacher, born in the UK and living in Antwerp with his Belgian-born wife for about 15 years.  I had met Jeremy when he was in Israel earlier to visit his three sons who live here.  He brought me some of his gluten-free, kosher-for Passover, ginger-based beer.  (You can read about that here.)

The oak chips that Jeremy sent me were of two varieties: American and French.  I promised him that I would use them in brewing beer and try hard to get my tongue around the different tastes -- if different tastes there were. 

The "tea" from the French
oak chips (left) was
noticeably darker than
the American. 
 
So even though this has nothing specifically to do with Israeli craft beer, I decided to experiment with these gifted oak chips.

Working with my home-brewing neighbor Moshe Lifshitz, we first made some nice cups of tea -- oak tea that is.  We boiled a few of the oak chips from the two sets, and let them steep for a good long time.  Then we compared the two teas.

The American oak made a much lighter colored tea than the French.  The aroma of wood was very understated in the American, but was more pronounced in the taste: something like tooth picks or ice cream sticks when you chew on them for a while.  There were also flavors of cinnamon and vanilla.

The French oak tea had about the same smell but the taste of the wood was deeper and stronger, with less of those other flavors.  They both were not too appetizing, but we were starting to recognize the different tastes.

When it came time to brew the beer, we consulted with other home-brewers and chose to make a Belgian Strong Ale.  This style provides a good base for the oak flavors to shine through, yet has enough strength so we wouldn't be tasting only the wood.

The hops used were Perle for the bittering; Styrian Goldings for flavor.  The four malts were pale barley and wheat.  The yeast was a strain used for Belgian strong ales.

Oak chips made for aging in
beverages.  Also available are
oak cubes and oak spirals.
At the end of fermentation, we divided the beer up into three batches: One without any oak chips, one with the French oak and one with the American oak.  We sterilized the chips before use by boiling them vigorously for 15 minutes.  All three batches were allowed to "condition" another three weeks before bottling.  Candy sugar was added to each batch for fermentation in the bottle.   The beers spent another three months in the bottles before we opened them for our final taste test.

The first variety we tasted was the beer aged with American oak.  It was semi-hazy copper colored, the hue you would expect from a blond Belgian strong, with a light tan head.  On the nose, you got a good whiff of the Belgian yeast, alcohol and bubbling brown sugar.  The taste also fit the style: semi-sweet, strong and rich, spicy and fruity, giving way to a dry finish.  But surprisingly, no wood that we could detect.  Remember that the tea made from American oak had a subtler taste than the French.   

You can't do an experiment
without the right equipment.
Although the beer aged with French oak had the same color as the American, in its other characteristics it was almost a mirror image.

The aroma, first of all, was weaker in the yeast and alcohol.  The taste, too, was less full and rich, and showed a drier and bitterer finish.  However, the oak chips were tasted and "felt" to a greater degree.  This truly had the character of an oak-aged beer.

Next we tried the "control" in our experiment -- the beer aged with no oak.

The color was clearer than the oak-aged versions, pointing to the darker color which had to be imparted by the oak chips themselves.  In aroma and taste, it was very close to the American oak: lots of alcohol, a bit sweeter and, of course, no wood at all.  But all the other tastes of the American oak ale had been richer and fuller than this.  Perhaps the American oak, which could not be detected as wood, was doing its bit by adding to the depths of the other flavors.  That seems to be a logical conclusion.   

Each of these three beers was enjoyable as a Belgian strong ale.  The addition of oak aging, in our opinion (Moshe's and mine), did make minor changes in the aromas and tastes in ways we did not expect.  These changes, however, were different with the American oak vs the French oak.  Yet this experiment developed our taste for oak which we should from now on be able to recognize and appreciate in beer -- and wine, for that matter. 

The experiment was well worth it, and now let's get back to the Israeli craft beer scene.     

1 comment:

Thanks for your comment. L'chayim!