Techniques for Wood-aged Beer
Basically, there are two major ways in which wood is used for beer—with barrels or wood chips. Either can be used in both the fermentation and aging of beer. Chips can be added to beer at practically any time as it matures, but they are normally used in the secondary fermentation process. Generally, the longer wood chips remain in the beer, the more pronounced will be their taste, so this has to be carefully monitored by the brewer. Many brewers have used chips in the past: Bert Grant’s Perfect Porter was made with an addition of oak chips, which gave it a strong vanilla (and somewhat woody) taste.
Likewise, Mount Hood Brewing’s flagship Ice Axe IPA uses chips to mimic the process of barrel aging that was no doubt part of the flavor profile of traditional IPAs, gained from their long voyage to India (it’s likely that Acetobacters and Brettanomyces were part of that flavor, too, however).
Brewers usually like used barrels for their beer, since the taste of new oak is often quite aggressive and can easily overwhelm beer (most wine averages 12% ABV and is not as sensitive to “over-oaking”). Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, CA uses only used wine barrels he purchases from top-notch local wineries. “I focus on what was in them before and the quality of the wine, “ he says. His beer Temptation, for example, is all put into former Chardonnay barrels.
An exception to the rule is Alan Sprints at Portland, OR’s Hair of the Dog, who always puts some of his beer Fred into new American oak barrels. With its high hop bitterness, this beer can stand up to new oak flavors, Sprints believes.