I’ve been brewing for a few years now and I’ve been contemplating starting some new phases of brewing. The first big change was to start up a sour pipeline. Sour beers take a long time to mature so one needs to plan ahead. One of the typical vessels used in sour-beer making is oak barrels. The typical oak barrel is between 50 and 60 gallons and quite large. This is far beyond the capacity of most homebrewers so it makes some sense to try something smaller. There are many places which let you order new barrels in smaller sizes, 1 to 20L (5-ish gallons) in capacity. New oak has some challenges when aging beers. The initial liquid in the barrel can pull out huge amounts of oak flavor, tannens, aromas, and can quickly overpower a beer. Practically, one cannot leave a beer in a new oak barrel for very long, certainly not long enough for the typical aging requirement for sour beers. There are a couple ways to address this over-oaking issue. The obvious one is to start putting beer into the barrel. Depending on the style of beer, the initial period in the barrel may be up to two or three weeks before it tastes too oaky. For the second beer, something like one or two months. By the third beer, it can be close to three or four months before the same level of oak character is tasted. At this point, the barrel is ready for sour beers.
Before I can add beer to a barrel, one must prepare it for use. The technique is the same whether new or used. The general technique involves filling the barrel with water until it doesn’t leak any more. I started with the warm-water method which involves filling half of the barrel up, re bunging, and then rolling the barrel around to ensure all surfaces are covered.
I drained and re-filled the barrel. This also helps loosen up the various bits that were inside the barrel.
That’s some nice char and whiskey coming out. But the color is clear, so it’s good to go. After refilling, it will be left on its end over night. If it holds water then it can be stored empty until I’m ready to rack; though the longer one goes without something inside it, the more likely microbes will grow inside. My plan is to fill this with beer this coming Friday.
The five gallon new barrel has proven to be a bit leaky at this point. In case you cannot tell, some of the rings seem to be a bit loose and gaps in the staves are wide enough for water to just flow out of it. The current plan is to work on swelling for five days. The first two days one end is soaked, then after changing all of the water, another two days for the other end. After five days, if it doesn’t hold water, then it won’t likely be trouble free. Here’s hoping that the Woxford Brewing branded barrel will swell up and be ready for an Imperial IPA in two weeks.