Barrel-aged beers are arguably the pinnacle of craft beer. They’re deliciously complex in flavor – achieving a wide variety of otherwise unattainable profiles – and all it takes is a little practice and a lot of patience. More and more, we’re seeing homebrewers rise to the challenge of barrel-aging, exploring new creations and testing the endless possibilities of this brewing method.
Yet, we barrel slingers see a lot of contradictory information floating around about what you need to get started barrel-aging. While a $2000 tool might help you in one way, is it really necessary to make sure your beer is safe from infection? Possibly, according to some sources; but also not, according to others. That’s why I took to the streets (meaning our warehouse, which is attached to the office) to talk to a pro, our in-house brewer, Nick Schiffefmiller.
I asked: So what do you need to start barrel-aging at home?
And in the immortal words of my personal favorite drinking buddy:
“All you really need is a freaking barrel and the knowledge how to brew beer.”
As much as I bugged Nick to give me more information about all the complex tools you may or may not need to barrel-age a homebrew to absolute perfection – nope. There’s no tool that your typical homebrewing beginner’s kit doesn’t have that you’d need to start barrel-aging at home. Besides a good freaking barrel.
You heard it here first, folks – if you’ve already brewed your first batch of beer, you have everything you need to get started. Congrats.
So the barrel part is what this post is about: What you need to consider when choosing a small format barrel as a homebrewer.
Homebrewers very rarely need the full-size barrels (50-ish gallons) that commercial brewers use to age their beers, so what you’re looking for is a “small format barrel.”
Pro Tip: A lot of head brewers at commercial breweries buy small format barrels to experiment their aged recipes in! They’re a hot commodity.
A small format barrel is anything that can contain between a few liters to 30 gallons. For the purpose of homebrewing, we recommend the 5-15 gallon range.
There are two main types of barrels: new and used.
At MWBC, we sell both. So what’s the difference? Pros and cons?
New barrels have never held liquid in them but they have been charred on the inside so they offer that oaky flavor we’re all looking for. You’ll get A LOT of barrel character from these babies, and in addition to the oakiness, you’ll achieve a very coconutty profile from the charred wood. Lagers would do well in this type of barrel!
However! As Nick and Craft Beer and Brewing point out, there’s no way to thoroughly sanitize a new barrel in preparation for beer to be aged in it without the use of alcohol. Yes, you can use heated water or steam to “sanitize” a barrel, as a couple of forums point out, but wood is porous. Our microbial friends can live deep, deep, deep in the barrel’s staves beyond what heat can reach, and so it’s always safer to age a spirit in the barrel first so the high alcohol liquid can kill all the little nasties and fuzzies (and infuse the wood with amazing flavors!) before you age your brews in the barrel. If you plan on serving your brew to your loved ones or to anyone with a great lawyer, let the records show that we recommend you opt for a once-used barrel to barrel-age your homebrewed beer.
Besides, if you’re using an oak barrel to age your homebrew for a whole freaking year, you should want it to have those otherwise unachievable notes of fine spirits. Just one woman’s opinion though.
That Flavor Though
So everything said, once-used barrels are the bees knees! In a whiskey or bourbon barrel, you can infuse a plethora of delectable notes from the more oaky flavors to a deeper vanilla and caramel tone, depending on how long you age your beer. High-gravity beers are perfect for this type of project, and my personal favorite is the ever popular stout and the up-and-coming ale! You’ll want to use a recipe with at least an 8% ABV, unless you’re working with a sour recipe – the barrel-aging process naturally sours lower ABV beers, so may as well commit ahead of time.
For more information about using a spirited-barrel for aging a beer – here’s a link to our free guide that breaks all the details down for you! It also goes over how to swell and check for leaks before you fill your barrel.
Last but Not Least
Our final thoughts and tips about how to get started barrel-aging as a homebrewer:
Use Separate Tools
When you work with different types of beer (such as sours and also high-gravity beer) there is a risk of cross-contaminating your equipment and infecting your beers. It’s worth investing in separate tools, like different auto-siphons and barrels. However, it is okay to keep your barrels in the same room, so long as they’re separated and you make sure their areas stay clean of any spills or leaks.
Sample with a Vinnie Nail
To prevent exposure to air, take samples of your barrel-aged beer through a drilled hole plugged with a vinnie nail.
Consistently Cool Storage
Our brewers recommend a temperature of 68-70* F for storing your aging beer. If you don’t have a controlled environment, a beneath-ground basement that doesn’t get warm during hot weather should do the trick. You want to keep the temperature relatively consistent throughout the duration of the aging process, only ever letting it fluctuate a couple of degrees.
At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to start barrel-aging your brews is the courage to start something new. You just have to jump in. Nick’s words, not mine. There will always be a chance that something could go wrong and you lose months’ worth of time, but hey – nothing great ever happened without taking a risk first! Do your research, follow the advice of credible people who have first-hand experience, and have fun in the creative process – that’s why you’re here to brew, right?
Download our free guide to barrel aging at home!