Using Oak Barrels For Sour Ales

Question

I have been home brewing now for two years. I am presently brewing extract kits but will graduate to all grain soon. I have recently tinkered with adding oak chips soaked in spirits to a secondary fermenter and am very pleased with the results.

I am in the market for a 5 gallon oak barrel that I intend to use for aging a batch of sour brown ale. I would normally resign myself to the status quo method, but since this beer is a serious investment in time( a year aging to reach desired sour taste), I would prefer the traditional method.

Any tips or advice you can provide using one of these?

Answer

Here’s a couple of things to think about with Sour Beers and Oak barrels.

First off, sour beers that are aged in oak barrels are typically aged in very old, very used barrels. Also, the barrels are usually extremely large, creating a very small surface to volume ratio.

Any eventual oak flavor is extremely minimal, and usually non existent. Using a new 5 gallon oak barrel, and aging a beer for a year in it, will result in an extremely oak flavored beer. It might be good enough to blend in VERY SMALL quantities with other sour beers for an oaked flavor, but that’d be about it. It certainly wouldn’t be a tasty drink on it’s own.

Most sour beers use oak barrels not for flavoring, but for allowing oxygen to enter the beer in small quantities. Remember that larger barrels have a lower surface to volume ratio than smaller barrels. This equates to more oxygen infusion per gallon of beer than what might be typical for a sour beer brewery.

There are many, and far cheaper, ways to mimic this micro oxygenation in sour beers. I personally use a 15 gallon plastic drum partially covered with foil. The glued on foil helps to minimize the extreme amount of oxygen transfer inherent in plastic, while still allowing enough in for the bacteria to use.