My American Stout has finished primary fermentation and I’m getting ready to add it to the barrel that I just got. In preparation for this let’s discuss how to use and maintain a barrel.
One note before I start, if you are looking to get wood aged flavors from barrel aging, you need a new barrel or a refurbished barrel. Many local distilleries and wineries will sell their used barrels for cheap. I called around my local area and found several wineries that would part with red wine barrels for 50$ to 75$. These barrels were all refurbished, and ready to go. Refurbished means cleaned, possibly shaved staves, and charred. Refurbished barrels have some wood flavor to impart due to the charring, but can have thinner staves, will be more oxygen permeable and won’t impart as much wood flavor as a new barrel; they may also still have flavors of the previous liquid they held, like red wine. Used barrels are a great option for sour beer. Once I extract all the oak flavor out of my barrel I will be turning it into a sour barrel.
When you get your barrel, it’s not ready to go just yet. There are a few steps you need to take. The first and most important step is to swell the wood. Take your new barrel and fill 1/3 with water. Wait a few hours, fill 1/3 wait several hours, fill the final 1/3 and wait a day. Ensure there are no leaks. Any well-made barrel will not leak after swelling, but if you have leaks, empty and repeat with hot water. After letting the barrel sit for a day, empty the water and you are ready to go. If the barrel is used, then you may want to burn a sulfur stick in the barrel or add sulfate tables to the water as you soak. This will help ensure any contaminates are gone prior to use.
Fill the barrel with your freshly fermented beer. Leave some head space for off gassing. I’d recommend not trying to ferment in the barrel. This can cause excessing foaming and blow-off. Instead, ferment in plastic or glass as per your usual routine, then secondary in the barrel. Be careful not to splash too much on to the outside of the barrel as this could encourage fungus growth. If you do notice dark spots forming around your airlock you should wipe off with hot water.
Over time, aging in the barrel will impart deepening wood aged flavors. Vanilla, dark chocolate and coffee are amongst the most pronounced. The level of flavor will depend on the age of the barrel and the length of time the beer spends in the barrel. While the flavor deepens, the beer will evaporate just a bit, called the angel’s share, and will oxidize just a tad, all of which will lead to a complex flavor. Don’t be impatient. Once you start aging a beer, you want to allow several weeks to pass before you sample. The newer the barrel the more intense the oak flavors will be, so you’ll need less aging time. As more and more beer passes through the barrel, you’ll need more time to bring out the flavors. Weeks will turn to months. Eventually, the entire oak flavor will be extracted from the barrel and you’ll need to decide to buy a new one, recondition the barrel, or move on of sour beers.
In between barrel aging projects, you need to store your barrel correctly. HomeBrewStuff’s barrels come with sulfate tables that you add to the barrel after filling it with water. The sulfate tables will keep the barrel clean while the water will keep the staves swelled and leak proof. If you don’t have sulfate tables, you can store the barrel filled 1/3 with water to help keep the staves swelled. Or if you are going to be using the barrel much later, you can wash the barrel with plain water, empty, and burn a sulfur stick in the barrel and store dry. If you store dry, you will need to swell the staves prior to use. If you store wet without any additives, don’t let the water sit for more than a few weeks or it could start to develop fungus or mold.
This is my first barrel. I have no hands on experience of how to use a barrel so I had to do a lot of research online. As I have said before, online sources can have misinformation in them. If you see something that I am misinformed about let me know in the comments. This is as much a learning experience for me as it is (hopefully) informative for you.