Spring is on its way, and the dark beer season is on its way out. Most beer brewers limit oak chips to flavoring their porters and stouts, but if you were one of “most” you probably wouldn’t be brewing your own!
Oak chips are available year round and can add a whisper to a punch of flavor to any brewed beverage (beer, wine, mead, etc…). Having been using them for hundreds of years, wine makers (and drinkers) are already familiar with the benefits of fermenting with oak, but there is more than one species of oak and more beer brewers than wine vintners.
Oak chips differ in their origin (e.g. American, French, and Hungarian) and toast levels. The most recognizable flavor of oak chips is vanilla, and the lipids, fats, and waxes found in the wood are responsible for the coconut and aromatic wood flavors. Flavor profiles of oak are enhanced during toasting, and the more toasted the oak, the more characteristics unique to that varietal are defined.
American oak chips have an intense oak flavor and much more vanillin and aromatic compounds, as well as low tannin content. This varietal releases aromatics more quickly than other oaks and thus needs less contact with the beverage. It is important to note however, that the immediate oak character is susceptible to fading over time and aging.
French oak chips are softer and have a more well rounded wood character. French oak chips are prized for their sweet spice flavors including cinnamon and allspice and although they have more flavor compounds and tannins, they have a less pronounced “oaky” character. These commonly perceived sweet and delicate flavors are contributed by the interaction of the tannins and liquid they are being aged in. These oak chips are said to develop a better flavor with more nuances over time.
Hungarian oak chips have high amounts of vanillin with notes of roasted coffee and bittersweet chocolate. These chips are also said to have a more pronounced oak flavor than American oak!
Sound tasty? Here’s how to use them:
First, you’ll need to sanitize your chips by steaming or quick boiling. You can also use high percentage alcohol; if you’re interested in bourbon-aged oak flavor try soaking cubes in bourbon or whiskey.
3 Ways to use oak chips:
Secondary Fermentation: Adding oak chips during secondary fermentation is the most common method. The more surface area of wood the more flavor will be released (i.e. a bag of thin oak chips the same weight as a bag of thick oak chips will yield stronger flavor). Wood chips will float (like witches) and it is important to keep wood surface in contact with the beer. A weighted hop bag will do the trick- just remember to sterilize the bag too! Sample the beer every day or two to monitor flavor. Oak aging can take anywhere from a few days to several months depending on oak used and desired flavor level.
Oak Tea: drop chips in enough water to cover and bring to a boil for 10-15 minutes. Once tea is complete, add it a bit at a time to the finished beer until you reach your desired flavor. This is obviously much faster than aging and lets you more closely control the flavor.
Liquor Tea: Add wood to a small amount of liquor (possibly diluted with water) and let sit for at least a week. Mix liquor in with beer in small amounts until you reach your desired flavor. Moderation is key as liquor can easily overpower the flavor of beer or wood chips themselves.
By Alyssa Campo