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Background:

I've purchased some lovely dark roasted oak chips that I plan on soaking in bourbon and using to flavor an Irish Red.

Friends of mine who have seasoned their beer on oak chips claim that you should rack your beer onto it in a secondary and "rotate" once every couple weeks to keep the oak exposed to flavor the beer. I've looked around at a number of sources on the subject, but I want to know what Homebrewing thinks is the best way to do this.

Research:

The options I've found for flavoring are:

  • Add chips to primary after it has mostly cleared up.
  • Place chips in a secondary and rack the beer onto them.
  • Boil the wort with the chips.
  • Add Oak tea (boil water or soak in liquor and then add that) to primary or secondary.

With many variations in between.

I'm looking for a good full-bodied oak flavor.

The Question:

What is the best way to add oak (chips) to a beer in order to impart the most flavor?

What say you?

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3 Answers

Recently brewed a maple bourbon porter with a friend and he suggested an interesting technique. When we brewed he started some oak chips soaking in bourbon, and at bottling we filtered out the chips and put the bourbon into the beer. This added some nice bourbon and oak flavor to the porter. Could potentially be too much for a Irish red, but in moderation could work well. Especially if you change the bourbon for an Irish whiskey.

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What I would do is a) add the chips in secondary and b) when you brew the beer put some test samples of chips into water at different amounts and leave it for two weeks in order to judge an appropriate amount of chips to use. I put 1g, 2g, 4g and 8g of chips into jars of boiled water and used these to judge the amount needed for the batch of beer and racked the beer on top of the appropriate level of chips. As an aside my understanding is that you get a different character from chips and cubes - the cubes being more effective.

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I don't have any experience with using oak yet, but from my research it seems the most common advice is to use oak chips/cubes in secondary and rack the beer on top of them. This simulates aging in an oak barrel. I would definitely avoid boiling the chips in the wort, who knows what the heat would do to the flavor profile.

Since oak chips have a relatively higher surface area people seem to recommend using them only for a few weeks to avoid "over oaking" the beer. Oak cubes can be used for much longer, 4-6 months or more.

If using chips, my recommendation would be rack to secondary on top of them (or bulk age first if necessary) and then taste weekly until you get to the desired level of oakness. I would sanitize by wetting the chips with a small amount of vodka (just enough to cover) for 24 hours prior to use, then dump the whole thing--vodka and all--into the carboy.

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