Choosing the Right Barrels for Brewing Beer
The whole point of having beer in contact with wood is for the beer to pick up some of the aroma and flavor characteristics of the wood. Additionally, if the beer is aged in a barrel that previously held another fermented beverage, such as wine or whiskey, the beer will also pick up the character of that beverage.
So what type of wood is best to use?
Choosing new or used beer barrels
Buy new or used? People have asked this question millions of times when it comes to big-ticket items like houses and cars, but you’d think it’d be a moot point when it comes to beer barrels. Why wouldn’t a brewer want all new barrels for his beers?
Brewers don’t want all new barrels because of the cost. Whether brewers have their own cooperage or buy their barrels from others, brand-new barrels represent a considerable expense for the brewery.
In the days before aluminum and stainless steel beer barrels, most breweries had their own on-premise cooperages, which is where the wooden barrels were constructed. The Samuel Smith brewery in Yorkshire, England, is one of the few breweries in the world that still has its own cooperage.
New barrels (especially oak) can impart a very raw, woody flavor in beer that’s sharp and astringent. Tannin, the bitter component that’s leached from grape skins to give red wine more backbone, is also leached out of wood. Tannins can make beer bitter and unpleasant. In order to avoid high tannin levels in their cask beer, brewers coat the interior of their barrels with pine pitch to minimize contact with the wood (pitch is a gooey, sticky liquid derived from resin collected from coniferous trees).
The whole point of reusing barrels for aging beer is to saturate the beer with the flavor enhancements from whatever beverage was last in that barrel. That unique flavor is something you can’t get from a brand-new barrel.
The advantages to using new barrels are that when they’re newly constructed, they’re as sturdy and water tight as they’ll ever be, and a well-made barrel can last many years. Old barrels can dry out, leak, and fall apart at inopportune times.
Opting for oak beer barrels
You can choose from a fair variety of different wood species for making barrels, each with its own wood character. Oak is the species of preference for barrel-making for these reasons:
Oak is a durable wood.
Oak isn’t a porous wood.
Oak imbues beer (and wine and whiskey) with pleasant and desirable flavors.
Oak is abundant in Europe and North America (where most of the world’s wines, whiskies, and beers happen to be made).
American white oak is more robust than European white oak, which isn’t necessarily a good thing — unless you’re a bourbon maker. For many beverage producers, subtlety and refinement are better than coarse and unbalanced flavors.