Do you have a spare bourbon barrel lying around your place waiting for you to make your next bourbon barrel aged (BBA) homebrew beer? Me neither. So you can either try to find one or you can just go to your local homebrew store and pick up some oak chips, cubes or staves like I did.
Even if I did have a barrel at my disposal I think I would still prefer to use oak chips anyway. Oak chips allow you to more easily control the amount of bourbon and oak flavors per batch. You can always add more chips but you can’t add more barrel.
So let’s get started, first you need to determine what kind of oak chips you want to use. Next what kind of bourbon you want to use. And finally exactly how much bourbon and “barrel” you want to taste in your batch.
Oak Chips vs Oak Cubes
Now we have already discussed the pitfalls to using actual barrels (less flavor control and of course limited availability) but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention in addition to chips there is yet another option – oak cubes. Oak cubes can also be found at the homebrew store but from a time perspective they are much less appealing when compared to chips. It takes much longer for the cube to absorb the bourbon and likewise much longer for the bourbon cubes’ flavor to permeate the beer.
So in my experience, oak chips work best. Be careful to select the purest chips, don’t source this key ingredient for your next batch from a home improvement store (they do carry chips for smoking meats, etc.) as they sometimes have additional flavors/chemicals you would not want in your beer.
There are two main types of chips to choose from, French and American. Oak chips in general have an undeniable vanilla flavor and sometimes you can also taste hints of coconut and/or aromatic wood. French chips offer well-rounded wood character, and sweet spice flavors including cinnamon and allspice. American chips have an intense oak flavor, with high vanilla and low tannin content.
There really is no wrong choice when it comes to what bourbon or whiskey you want to use. I personally prefer bourbon and aim for something with a good bit of vanilla & caramel flavors (Makers Mark 46).
You can very the time you let the chips soak in bourbon based on your preference. The longer they soak, the stronger the bourbon flavors. The less, the more dry oak flavor. The flavors of oak/bourbon will also depend on when you drink your beer. The bourbon and oak flavors will become less harsh and mellow out as the beer ages. You can expect to enjoy more rounded flavor from your batch months later.
For a 5 gal homebrew batch I combined two ounces of French oak chips med toast with three shots of my favorite bourbon. I let that soak for three days then pitch all chips and remaining liquid into the secondary fermenter with the beer. Check out our article on using a secondary fermenter to age beer, I prefer to use a plastic larger mouth carboy which makes it easier to add/remove the chips.
(Note -if you plan to bottle, use a little less priming sugar because bourbon naturally adds additional sugar which can result in over carbonation)
Check out our homebrew Russian imperial stout recipe that can be bourbon barrel aged(coming soon). Imperial stouts are the ideal beer style for a homebrew beer that will be barrel aged. Soured beers are also great for barrel aging. As mentioned previously, if you wait to drink your bourbon barrel aged beer the smooth rich flavors will be at their prime a few months or even years down the road.