Her disposition may be subtle or wholly overstated, depending on the season. But minimally, you should expect that she’ll have the keys to affect the entire flavor house of beer. She’ll spend the bulk of her time being tannic. As a consumer, you can expect to be the object of her acerbic drying barbs. Rest assured, if you ride these out, her demeanor will soften. Do not let your guard down. The aged, smoother tannins will always remain, albeit in a less intrusive way.
Hopefully, the two of you will have good days, and everything will turn up vanilla. Your world will smell familiar and sweet. Vanilla is so powerful you’ll swear white oak likes you. Caution, her daughter married down when she met beer. For a mother-in-law always believes her daughter should dream each night in a château somewhere.
When white oak acts up, you’ll need to break out the charm card. It might be best to ply her with some caramels and toffee-laced notes. These shouldn’t be hard to find. They’ll just be below the surface of the tannins and vanilla. Should you successfully find these traits, you’ll have the tools needed to predict white oak’s moods, their peaks and valleys. In time the subtle nuances revealed between batches and barrels will come with ease. With this road map in hand, you might even learn to appreciate white oak enough to invite her to hang around, opening your home to her extended stay in your cool damp cellar.
In many ways, your journey will echo mine. You’ll learn to appreciate the flavors of white oak and her almost cantankerous mother-in-law-like temperament without ever knowing all of “Mom’s” life story or how she came to be the preferred wood for aging precious alcohols. I know this because every time you uncork a powerful Napa cabernet or nurse three fingers of your favorite bourbon, you’ll be conversing with her. And like me, you’ll LOVE that conversation.
After 15 years of working with oak barrels and beer, I’m here to tell you that I don’t know much, but I know I love her. I am not alone in my love for her capabilities. There are captains everywhere who daily fill an armada of white oak barrels and set them afloat with the same hope, wishes and dreams as newlyweds leaving the wedding chapel in Vegas. But like some of those unions, we’re not successful 100 percent of the time … and that may be all you need to know.