BARRELS VS. CHIPS

One of the most ubiquitous trends in the craft beer world over the past few years has been barrel-aging. While some time spent mellowing in a nice, toasted oak cask can add wonderful complexity and character to a brew, there are some major hurdles to overcome if your brewery wants to start a barrel program.

First, and most obvious, is the cost. If you want to age your beer on any sort of mass-production scale, you’ll need a LOT of barrels. And a good oak barrel doesn’t come cheap. Most breweries purchase used barrels from the wine or spirits industry (which is why you see so many bourbon and scotch-aged beers). But even used barrels, when purchased in bulk, add up. And don’t forget that the styles of beer that age the best are expensive-to-produce, high-gravity numbers like Imperial Stouts and Barleywines. You’re already plunking down a lot of cash just to purchase the ingredients to make those big beers. Add the cost of brewing the beer to the cost of your aging program and you’re shelling out big bucks for the privilege of brewing that prestige beer you’ve been dreaming of.

Second is the risk factor. Wood barrels, particularly used ones, can often harbor unwelcome bacteria that can spoil a beer quickly. Wild Brettanomyces yeasts love to hang out in the nooks and crannies of a wood barrel and many a brewmaster has had his or her prestige, oak-aged beer destroyed by the presence of unwelcome Brett. There’s a reason most professional, modern brewing equipment is made of stainless steel. Wood is messy.

Third is the issue of time. It probably goes without saying, but when you age a beer, it keeps it out of the hands of consumers for months (or even years). If your brewery is surviving on razor-thin profit margins, would you rather churn out batch after batch of your flagship IPA every two weeks or hang onto a barrel-aged RIS that will be sitting in your brewery’s cellar for 6 months?

Add up all of those concerns, and you can see why some breweries might not choose to jump into the barrel-aging fray.*

*Or perhaps, like Doc, they’re just grumpy, old men.

But what if a brewery wants their beers to benefit from the subtle complexities that wood brings to the party without engaging in a costly, risky, barrel-aging program? Well, there’s another option: wood chips.

Wood chips are exactly what they sound like. It’s like adding a bag of mulch to your beer.*

*Not really, but close.

The wood doesn’t have to be in “chip” form, of course. Some breweries use chunkier wood cubes while others use wood spirals. It depends on how much surface area you want exposed. Adding wood chips to your fermenting beer imparts the same flavor and character as barrel-aging while eliminating some of the aforementioned drawbacks. Chips are FAR cheaper than barrels, naturally. It greatly reduces the risk of infection because the fermentation takes place in the relatively risk-free comfort of your existing stainless steel fermenters. And the greater surface area of wood in contact with the beer allows the wood to impart its flavor even more quickly than it would in a barrel.

Cheaper, easier, and faster? Why don’t ALL breweries use wood chips instead of barrels? Well, there are a few reasons…

First, there’s the problem of stigma. In the wine industry, many (if not most) educated oenophiles won’t even purchase a wine if they believe it’s been aged with oak chips instead of barrels. Even though blind taste tests have proven that wine drinkers can’t tell the difference, there is still a strong belief that wood chips are the “wrong” way to oak-age wine. While this kind of “old-school” mentality is less prevalent amongst Aleheads than oenophiles, it’s still an issue.

The second reason should be obvious. You can’t use wood-chips if you want to age in used bourbon-barrels or scotch-barrels (or pinot-noir barrels, or cabernet-barrels, etc.). I mean, I suppose you “could” chop up those barrels into chunks and use the resulting chips in your beer, but at that point you’ve already purchased the barrels…why not just use ‘em? Also, you’d have the same risk of infection with those wood chunks as you would with just the barrels. Using wood chips as an alternative is only useful if you want to do a “basic” oak-aged (or other wood type, of course) beer. If you want to add some bourbon or scotch notes to your brew, you’ll still have to go with the barrels.

The final reason involves some chemistry, so I’ll let the Professor chime in:

“There is a measurable amount of gas exchange across wood barriers (barrels) that doesn’t occur in glass or metal containers.  This is claimed to modulate slow oxidative processes related to aging.  However, as far as I know you can’t taste the difference for the most part. At least in a blind test.”

In a nutshell, the Professor is saying that oxygen can leak into even the tightest barrel because wood is porous (which obviously would NOT happen in a stainless steel tank). While oxygenation is frowned upon in the beer world, some brewers think that the very small amount that leaks into barrels during aging is responsible for some very welcome buttery, mellow flavors. But as the Professor notes, taste tests don’t necessarily back up this belief. Nevertheless, if someone tells you there’s a chemical difference between barrel-aging and wood chip-aging, they are technically correct.*

*Ah, but what of beechwood aging? Budweiser often hypes their proprietary “beechwood aging” process with their beers. Are you telling me that Budweiser is actually a wood-aged brew?

No. Not at all. Beechwood, particularly when it’s been stripped down and sterilized as it is at Anheuser-Busch, imparts absolutely NO flavor or complexity to a beer (shocking, I know!). Instead, AB uses the beechwood chips to make their already artificially-shortened brewing process even faster. By adding a layer of beechwood chips to their fermenters, AB gives the flocculating yeast in their lager a variegated surface area to cling to. If you picture a smooth stainless steel fermenter versus one with a layer of rough (at least compared to the stainless steel) wood chips on the bottom, you can imagine how much MORE surface area the latter has at the base. Since yeast likes to cling to things, the beechwood chips essentially pull the yeast out of the beer much more quickly than if they weren’t present. This allows the clarifying and lagering processes to be sped up exponentially which, in turn, allows Budweiser to churn out their product even faster.

So yes, AB really DOES use wood chips in their brewing process. But not for the reasons you think.

So will barrel-aging eventually disappear in favor of the cheaper, easier, less-risky, wood-chip approach? Probably not.

The truth is, one of the things Aleheads love about the craft beer industry is the whole idea of it being “hand-crafted”. Even if there’s no discernible difference between a barrel-aged vs. oak-chipped beer, a lot of beer geeks simply prefer the time and effort it take to run a legit barrel-program instead of just tossing in chips. Some breweries, like Dogfish Head and Two Brothers have even gone so far as to create giant wood “foudres” which are essentially fermenters made out of wood planks. This allows them to wood-age their beer at a production capacity without having to deal with barrels (a nifty little “cheat” that bypasses the wood-chip stigma).

What’s your take, Alehead Nation? Do you appreciate the time and care necessary to run a true barrel-aging program? Of if it tastes the same, do wood chips not bother you? Any brewers/homebrewers out there care to weigh in on the pros and cons of barrel vs. chips? Is there more to it than what I’ve explained above?

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13 comments

  1. “Even though blind taste tests have proven that wine drinkers can’t tell the difference, there is still a strong belief that wood chips are the “wrong” way to oak-age wine.”

    The problem is that, as you mentioned in the previous paragraph, the oak flavour comes into the wine too quickly, and with no subtlety. Although some characteristics imparted from oak are desirable, a wine whose flavours are dominated by injudicious use of oak is generally considered to be of lower quality, and chips are a pretty sure route to that – thankfully one being abandoned by most modern wineries.

    1. You’ll have to forgive me because I don’t understand. If most wine-drinkers can’t tell the difference in the final product, then how do you know the oak flavor comes in “too quickly,” or with no subtlety?

      How confident are you in your own palate to be able to make that determination? I certainly wouldn’t assume I could tell the difference.

      1. I’m not disputing the point about telling the difference. I’m just saying that the result you can get with oak chips, or an equivalent with a barrel, is rarely one that a winemaker would want to achieve towards the premium end of the market.

        A maker of better quality wines will more than likely use a mix of old (5+ year/fill) and new barrels, maybe even of different sizes, and be prepared to let the wine naturally mature in those casks to get to the desired end. It’s a slow, multi-dimensional process. On the other hand, if the process is merely one of ‘making the wine taste of oak’ then it makes no difference.

        I hope this explains my point a bit more!

        1. What I don’t understand is that, if it truly tastes the same doing it either way, are the barrels just being used because of stigma and aesthetics?

          Or are you saying that the use of a barrel serves a dual purpose in aging the wine? That I would understand.

          1. A barrel (rather than chips in a sealed tank) will also allow a degree of micro-oxygenation. So yes, I guess I’m saying there is a secondary purpose.

            I’ve written a blog post on how I understand it (I’m not a winemaker), since I’ve been doing a bit of beer blogging about oak. Have a look if you’re interested.

            http://wineadviceuk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/barrels-vs-chips.html

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  2. I can certainly appreciate barrel aging programs, even ones that don’t use bourbon/scotch/wine/whatever barrels (think Firestone Walker), but I don’t have any problem with a brewer using oak chips/cubes/whatever either. I recently had a Schlafly Oak Aged Barleywine that used chips, and it was great. Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti was also fantastic.

    From a homebrewing perspective, I have no experience with oak, but it’s obviously much easier for a homebrewer to use chips/cubes in secondary than to start a barrel program! I’ve looked into it though, and it seems that a lot of folks will even soak their oak in bourbon ahead of time to get that bourbon barrel character. I can’t say as though I’ve ever had a beer made that way, but I don’t see why it couldn’t work (may be difficult to commercialize that process though)…

    My local homebrew club actually has a full bourbon barrel with some imperial stout in it, but I wasn’t really involved and haven’t had a chance to taste any yet…

    1. As far as I’ve always read, the booze-soaked chips or cubes has always pretty much been the go-to method for homebrewers to do “barrel-aged” beer variants at home. Denny Conn has a really famous bourbon barrel stout that is done in that manner.

  3. BeerCast Rich · · Reply

    It may just be a myth, but I’m sure I heard that Mikkel Borg Bjergsø once aged a beer by dumping a load of wooden spoons into the fermenter, as that’s all he could get hold of at the time. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

    Interesting info about Budweiser – I didn’t realise that was the reason behind the ‘beechwood bullshit’. You learn something every day on the Aleheads…

  4. Herr Hordeum · · Reply

    I think chips and barrels both have their place in brewing.

    Chips make it possible to produce a beer with wood flavors quickly. Like most Aleheads, I don’t think I’d want to try a true barrel aged IPA that has been sitting around for 6 months. However, I am completely in favor of an IPA conditioned with some wood chips along with the dry hops.

    Sure, maybe with practice and experimentation, a great brewer can get identical results with chips and barrels. But to many consumers (including myself), there is something inherently cool about taking the time and effort to produce a great barrel aged beer, especially after visiting distilleries or breweries with barrel-aging programs. Taste a a very subjective sense, even if chips and barrels taste identical, a customer may appreciate the complete experience of barrel-aged beers, and therefore prefer them.

    I think the same can be said for many artisanal products.

  5. […] trots out Bud’s tired old “This is the only beer beechwood aged” trope. As we’ve discussed before at Aleheads, the whole beechwood aging thing is utter horseshit. Beechwood chips add no flavor or complexity to […]

  6. […] Review of Schilling Oak Aged.  This is my favorite Schilling Cider out of the seven I’ve tried.  Interestingly enough this cider is not oak barrel aged, but instead uses American oak chips in the fermentation and racking process to impart the oak flavor.  I’ve seen this done with other alcoholic beverages (such as whiskey) to be able to more quickly release a product, as barrel aging can be time consuming.  Chips can also cost significantly less.  Some traditionalists may call this “cheating” though.  Here is a cool barrels vs. chips blog post from ALEHEADS from the beer world. […]

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