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Initial oak barrel experience

Awhile ago someone shared a link on Home Brew Talk with freshly emptied 15 gallon oak barrels at a reasonable price.  I called the shop to see if any were still available and they said there was only one and it was reserved.  More would be available in a few months though and they would email me then.  I received the email later only to find that the price had risen to $150 a piece (they were $120).  I decided that a homebrew shop was a bad place to be looking and started searching for distilleries that sell the barrels.  Corsair Distillery had 15 gallon rye whiskey barrels for a reasonable price ($125) so I pulled the trigger before the price rose.

There are many out there and there are many barrel that are appropriate sizes for homebrewers.  I saw 5, 8, 10, and 15 gallon barrels.  Now, I only brew 10 gallon batches so why did I opt for a 15 gallon barrel?  Well, eventually the oak character will dissipate and not contribute much to the beer, even with long term aging.  People seem to have different input on when this will happen, but the most common timeline I found was 3 batches of beer.  Three batches of oaked beer isn’t a lot to get for the price of the barrel, so I needed a plan for the post-oak stage of the barrel.  That plan was a single vessel sour solera.

Solera is the process of aging beer and blending it overtime with new beer to create a balanced and complex blend.  This will work for any beer but in the instance of sours, the bugs present will keep the beer “evolving” over time which sounds pretty great.  My idea is to have it full and once every 6 months (or so) pull out 5 gallons and fill it with 5 more gallons of fermented beer.  This will give me a constant supply of blended sour beer and is just a really awesome concept to me.  With a 15 gallon barrel, I will be able to make it worth the while of having a solera.

A few days later, look what was sitting on my porch…
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I took the following Friday off work and brewed two batches of a big stout, one on Thursday night and one on Friday during the day.  Here is the recipe:

    • 82% Pale 2-Row
    • 7% Roasted Barley
    • 5% Special B
    • 4% Chocolate Malt
    • 2% Carapils
    • ~55 IBUs Pearle Hops at 60 minutes
    • ~25 IBUs East Kent Golding Hops at 30 minutes
    • ~1.080 OG

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Everyone says to fill the barrel ASAP so I decided that for such a big beer I would need it fermented out fast.  On the pitching rate calculator I use, it has an option of Pro Brewer rates of pitching.  I remember Jason Lavery telling me about quick turnover of high gravity beers by pitching the right amount of yeast.  Each of my four 5 gallon carboys received 3 packs of dried Nottingham yeast.  The fermentation started really fast and was done in roughly 4 days.

Now comes the million dollar question – Where the hell do I store the barrel?  Word to the wise, if you’re considering buying a barrel, find out how big it is and make sure you have a good spot for it.  My barrel ended up bigger than anticipated and my “ideal” spot was no good.  I found another good spot but it was occupied by a rubbermade tote full of brewing supplies so I decided to build a shelf/stand sort of thing to keep the barrel on.  Here are my plans and measurements, only partially scribbled on by the kids:
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If you plan on storing the barrel on the floor, you need to consider how slow it will be to siphon out of it when emptying it.  This is the main reason I went with a shelf design.  For about $13 worth of lumber and an hours worth of work, this is what I came up with.  It supports the barrel really well and I am sure it will when full as well.

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At this point, the barrel has a home and the beer is ready for the oak, so I need to prep the barrel.  Ideally, the barrel can just be filled.  It previously contained whiskey and has been sealed tight, so there is no worries about infection.  The bung was super tight (how often can you say that with a straight face?) and I needed a pair of pliers to remove it.  It smelled amazing inside, like coconut, vanilla, whiskey, oak.  Man, I am getting excited about this.  The only worries I have are about the barrel leaking if it dried out at all.  Again with advice from Jason, I heated up some water to over 190* to kill any bugs in the water and filled the barrel.  This will check for and fix any leaks that may be present.  I decided to only put 5 gallons of the hot water in the barrel so it would be easier to manage.  To check all the staves for leaks, I rotated the barrel several times in order to make contact with the entire inside.
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So it looks like I didn’t need to do the leak check, it was all sealed up well enough.  I would rather be on the side of caution though so whatever.  I emptied the barrel and gave it about a gallon of near boiling water.  The barrel was sealed and rolled like mad to rinse the inside out again.  Then I sealed it up and let it cool overnight.  You would be surprised how good of an insulator the oak is and how long it takes to cool.

So the time has come.  Stout, meet your new home.  Barrel, meet your new inhabitant.  Play nice together and don’t oak too quickly – I want a decent amount of time to prep for the next batch (a Belgian Tripel) and I have limited keg/bottle space.  As the beer was siphoned into the barrel, it smelled absolutely amazing just by having the beer displace the air in the barrel.  I ended up filling it a bit too much and had to pull a small sample so beer wasn’t creeping into the airlock.  I also ended up with roughly 2 gallons of extra beer that went into a corny keg.  That will be used to top off the barrel if needed, or to have a “clean” variety to sample against.  I will sample the beer once every 2 or 3 weeks and see how it is progressing and keep everyone updated.  With the huge volume of this beer, I will be very giving with it and will probably use it for the Winter Beer Swap.

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Here is the planned life cycle of the barrel:

  1. RIS – measured 8% ABV (+ a little more maybe from the whiskey?)
  2. Belgian Tripel – anticipated 9% ABV
  3. ??? – Looking for suggestions!  Comment below!
  4. Low alcohol sour solera.

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Thanks for taking the journey with me and reading all of this.  I know it’s a lot but I want to share my experience with everyone.

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One comment on “Initial oak barrel experience
  1. Don Maier says:

    Great article.

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