Wood for the Homebrewer
Wood in the home brewery can be difficult to manage, but there are some shortcuts. Besides, wood isn’t absolutely essential to get you into the ballpark with this style, and I do recommend brewing one batch of this even if you don’t feel like messing with oak.
The most manageable solution is to use small oak cubes manufactured for the wine industry by StaVin (www.stavin.com). The company produces French, Hungarian and American oak cubes, about 3/8 of an inch on a side. These are intended to refresh tired wine barrels but will suit our purposes nicely. They come in several degrees of toastiness, packaged in sanitized foil packs. I personally haven’t had a chance to experiment with them, but next time, I’m going for French oak, with a light toast. A small handful will suffice. American oak will be far too pungent for beer use, except for massive brews.
On the other hand, you can go to extremes. I know an amazingly dedicated homebrewer who keeps a 50-gallon barrel of the brew going, withdrawing beer when he has fresh beer to add, in much the same manner as a sherry solera. This is beyond the reach of most of us individually, but it might be a rocking good idea for a club.
If you choose to use this brew as a base for fruit beer, ferment through the primary, then rack into a secondary onto plenty of fruit. Use at least 1 pound per gallon of cherries, half that for raspberries, although you could easily double those quantities and not have too much. I like to use fruit that has been frozen, as this lightens the microbial load a bit, but more importantly, breaks down the cell walls to make the sugars more accessible to the yeast. I also prefer cherries with pits, as they add a certain almond/kirsch complexity. Sour pie cherries are generally better than an eating type (such as bing) for intensity of flavor.
My own method is to do the secondary in a glass carboy, filling it with beer and fruit up to just below where the jug neck narrows. I find that this reduces the surface exposed to air, and thereby reduces the likelihood of mold developing. At the same time, this leaves enough headroom to prevent a piece of fruit from blocking the stopper hole, which can cause enough pressure to develop that it can explode the carboy (it has happened!).
Let the beer sit on the fruit for one to four months, rack into a carboy, and allow to settle before bottling or kegging.