hist-brewing: oak and beer part 2

Kirsty Pollock kirsty.pollock at mpuk.com
Thu Sep 30 01:28:01 PDT 1999

Oak in Brewing
by Al Korzonas
Alan writes in The Homebrew Digest <http://www.hbd.org/>: 
>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
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
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 <http://www.bjcp.org> 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 
All Rights Reserved 

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