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I was recently given a 5L oak barrel from Oak Barrels Ltd. and I've never used such a thing before and have some basic questions.

The barrel came with a great little instruction guide which talks about basic barrel prep, sanitation, and storage (among other things). Also on their website they link to this article by Terry Terfinko from 1995 titled, Oak Barrel Experiment, which answers a lot of questions about beer making with barrels. However there are a few pieces of the puzzle missing:

  1. 5L (1.3 gal) vs 5 gal: I have 5 gallon batch equipment currently. Should I invest in some stuff like 1 gallon carboys and mini auto-siphons for smaller batches? Should I scale recipes which are for 5 gal down to smaller sizes by just dividing everything by 5?
  2. The instruction guide mentions the idea of "topping off" the barrel from time to time. This is because of the Angel's share, that being the beer/wine/whiskey that evaporates during the aging process. So how do I do this with beer? Do I need to keep some extra beer around somewhere (refrigerated?) maybe in growlers or something? This may play into the answer to the first question about batch size.
  3. I've been doing extract brewing (with grain bags in there too) so far and don't have all grain equipment, I assume that won't be a problem. I guess the question is, will it (be a problem)?
  4. Any suggestions on kind of beer to make? I thought stuff like a Russian imperial stout or Scotch Ale or some other strong ale might be good. But most of those say to age for 6 months minimum and the guide suggests 4-6 weeks aging for the 5L barrel. Maybe just some basic brown ale for the first time, since they're usually pretty cheap and easy to make.

Thanks for taking the time to read this longer post. I'm excited to start trying this thing out but without answers to some of these questions, I'm a bit nervous about messing it up (I know, RDWHAHB).

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Its not too long. Good questions and good insight for your first barrel project. –  brewchez Aug 3 at 12:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

First I would stick with 5 gallon equipment and brew half sized batches. Barrel half and bottle the other half. Then you have side by side comparators. I don't think worrying about angel's share is a concern. With such a small barrel the surface contact to volume ratio is going to be huge. The first few batches will likely develop huge oak flavors very quickly. You may be pulling the batch out for packaging before you've really lost much of the beer. Depending on how much this small barrel breaths there will be significant oxidation if not left too long.

The barrel doesn't care whether the beer was made by extract or all grain. Good beer is good beer. You are brewing good beer right? Lastly beers like browns, porters and stouts are a good place to start.

As the barrel looses some of its wood character lightening the profile to reds and pales would be good choices. I'd think a very strong beer at first going in would be a good idea because the fresh oak character will come on quickly. So you'll need a brew that will stand up to it.

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Any thoughts on the aging requirements for some stronger ales (imperial stouts and scotch ales often say 6 months minimum) and the fact that with the first few batches the beer will probably be sufficiently oaked after a few weeks. –  ZombieDev Aug 5 at 16:02
    
I would simply suggest that you get a wine thief and be prepared to start taking taster samples after three days regardless of beer strength. You may still need to transfer the oaked beer to carboy or keg for more aging as it might not stay in the barrel long enough to mature beyond oak flavor. Make sense? –  brewchez Aug 6 at 12:09
  1. I wouldn't bother getting smaller equipment. Assuming you brew 5 gallon batches, why not just ferment your beer as usual, then move 1.3 gallons into the barrel, and bottle the remaining 3.7 gallons?
  2. I have a small 1L barrel filled with rum. Over the last 6th months, I've lost about 1/2 of it (due to seepage, not evaporation). My barrel is physically leaking. Depending on how long you want to keep your beer in the barrel, it may be a good idea to keep a couple bottles of beer (non-carbonated) around in order to top it off.
  3. Won't be a problem.
  4. I'd personally suggest a heavy or dark beer. I have another 5G barrel in which I'm currently aging a Coffee Chocolate Stout.

Cheers!

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