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01/08/08 06:24 PM  
Oak Barrel Treatment
I see that barrels and wood have been addressed in various threads here, but I wanted to start one dedicated to the care and feeding of wood vessels. As you may have guessed, this is because I recently became the proud owner of one - a 20L French oak barrel.

I am preparing to get going with it, and wanted to ask a question of the savvy folks here, to wit: most barrel preparation instructions call for sodium metabisulphite and citric acid as one part of the process. A couple of references indicate the potassium metabisulfite is an acceptable substitute. As I am currently unable to get the sodium product, I'm looking for some feedback from this trustworthy group that the potassium one is OK.

Al B
01/08/08 06:46 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Erik -

Thats awsome. Is the barrel a new one or used? And what will be your barrel-aged brew ???

01/08/08 10:53 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
It's a new one, Al - so I am particularly concerned to condition it correctly before the first use. Fortuitously (heh), I also happen to be brewing my first Imperial Stout based on a Great Divide Yeti-inspired recipe. I do like their oak-aged version of that beer very much. At 26 lbs of grain for a 6-gal batch, it will max out my mash tun capacity!

I figure this brawny style will be less likely to be overwhelmed by strong new-barrel oakiness, but am probably going to only age it maybe 3 weeks in the barrel to be on the safe side. Then what to make to keep it filled . . .hmmm.

Al B
01/09/08 07:44 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
As far as I know, potassium metabisulfite is more than acceptable.
01/09/08 07:57 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
If you are only using the sulfite for sanitizing and cleaning, it doesn't really matter which one you use--it's the sulfur you're after. I use potassium meta because I have it around from wine making and I'm a cheap enough bastard that I can't conscionably spend the extra $3.50 for something I already have. In fact, I also use it to treat my brewing water (it helps precipitate out chlorimine flavors).

The only real consideration I know of is that sodium meta, if used in large quantities (say, 100 ppm) to biologically stabilize wine or protect it from oxidation, can, to a refined palate, contribute a salty taste, as well as adding dietary sodium. Then again, any overuse of either meta will contribute a match-sticky sulfur quality. But this is only if the meta remains in the wine. Used as a sanitizer, this is not a problem. Any residual meta left in the wood would not have a high enough concentration to adversely affect your beer.

01/09/08 10:18 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Congratulations Erik.

I just got 2 barrels (new) last year. I wanted to strip out as much oak flavor as possible, so I soaked them three times (1-2 months per soak) with the potassium metabisulfite and citric acid solution. I still expected them to contribute way too much oak to the first batches, which were a flanders red and an old ale with claussenii. Having tasted these beers at 2-3 months, yes the oak taste is huge but it's less than what I expected (i.e. I think these beers will be very drinkable).

I think a lot of oak was stripped out by the soaking process. The soaking solution was almost amber in color when I poured it out each time. So I think that process works IF you're looking to strip out oak.

01/11/08 04:31 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Thanks for all the feedback! I am going with the potassium metabisulfide and will do a couple soaks, but probably not for as long as Baums - if I remember correctly, your barrel was American Oak? I'm willing to take the chance of a first batch or two being pretty darn oaky. Umm . . .in the name of Science of course!
Happy Feet
01/21/08 09:33 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment

Where did you get the barrel and how much did you pay? I just ordered a new 23 L barrel made from American oak. Would love a french oak barrel.


01/22/08 10:12 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Mine were American oak, paid about 140 each, from the barrelmill.com site. Very high quality... held water immediately with no leaking. They did leave a couple hoop nails out of one barrel, which was a little annoying. That was probably an unusual mistake though.
01/22/08 11:10 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Baums, ya mean thebarrelmill.com ?

01/22/08 12:48 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Mr. Feet -

Mine was an Xmas gift from family, but I am pretty certain they got it from Northern Brewer. They list this type of barrel (French Oak, approx. 5 gal (20L)) at $245.99.

No feedback on it yet as I am just starting the conditioning process with Barrolkleen and potassium metabisulfite - moving forward thanks to the comments from the BBB!

02/18/08 08:51 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
OK, had a little math lesson tonight. 20L barrel = 5.28 gal. Which is to say a little more than the beer I had available. So there is maybe a 1.5" gap between the surface of the beer and the level of the bung. That's at the center of the barrel, mind you, so it's probably full at the ends.

I know it is a given that over time barrels must be topped up. I am planning to age this first batch 3-4 weeks max in this new barrel (stripped with Barolkleen 3x). Should I be concerned about topping up immediately or am I OK for this first short run? I would plann to fill to the top with sterilizing solution or the next product in any event in 3-4 weeks.

And if the consensus is that I should top up promptly, any suggestions? I have bottles of other homebrew that I thing would not be too off the mark (and ESB and this is an Imp. Stout) . . .

02/19/08 10:04 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Personally I wouldn't sweat it. I suspect pouring in bottles of beer would aerate it more than just leaving it alone would. That doesn't sound like a ton of headspace--probably less (on a percentage basis) than you'd get just from bottling.

But if you really want to do something, you could purge the headspace with CO2.

02/20/08 10:00 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
We keep our 60 gallon barrels topped off once a week - this is only if you are aging an already fermented beer. Otherwise if you're fermenting in a barrel (we did an all brett CL Belgian Pale Ale in a brandy barrel and needed to keep some headspace until the foam died down.
02/24/08 09:10 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Thanks for the feedback, folks. I sort of took a middle course - added 2 x 12 oz bottles of the ESB, which reduced the air space to maybe 1" or so at the bung. Decided to leave it at that.

This is a secondary fermentation after maybe 4 weeks in glass, so no problems on the kraeusen side. I was mostly worried about the beer-free top portion of the barrel drying out or getting infected.

I hit this with Barolkleen a few times before putting this inaugural batch of beer in, and I think I will probably do one more round after this beer comes out, then sterilize with metabisulfite again before the next beer. Should take some of the time pressure off also as I haven't got something else ready to put in just yet really. I do have some mead that could be used in a pinch if anyone thinks the above is a bad way to go.

05/20/08 11:13 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
I am interested in how people are pre-treating their barrels before putting beer in them, especially new ones. A couple of posts in the board have referenced multi-month soaks with citric and sulphur solution. I believe this is a good sanitizer, but may not do much for de-oaking the barrel beyond straight beer or water.

Barrelkleen is basically soda ash (sodium carbonate) plus a bit of lye/caustic for good measure. I read about using just sodium carbonate on the biohazard page. Once you add it to water, I am not sure (beyond the pH) whether there is much difference in the actual solution from oxy clean/pbw (sodium percarbonate) or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). One will release CO2 + H20... one releases O2 + H2O... you ultimately have the same solution in the barrel. I suspect any of these three will have the same overall effect, and work similar to the box of baking soda in the refrigerator at adsorbing the odors/flavors we are trying to reduce.

Has anyone developed a specific procedure for de-oaking a new barrel?

05/20/08 11:23 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
I was encouraged by a pro winemaker NOT to treat the new barrel with the kind of alkali solutions you mention, even if I was trying to strip out the oak. I don't remember why. I do remember also hearing reports from homebrewers that alkali didn't strip out the oak that well.

The repeated soaks with (metabi)sulfite and citric acid definitely rip out some oak--you can see and smell it when you dump out the solution. It's widely held in wine circles that this "storage solution" strips out a lot of oak. I am convinced my 3 soak procedure (1-2 months per soak) did a lot. Changing the solution more often would probably make it more effective.

One question is do you want an alkali or acid condition in the cask, to strip out oak. I don't know the answer, but it did make a bit of sense to me to go the citric acid route because beer is also acidic.

I have NEVER seen a procedure that is guaranteed to make a new oak cask work just right on the first batch. And not for lack of trying--I've looked everywhere and talked to a lot of people. In the end I'm actually happy with how the citric acid thing worked out--the beers are too oaky as I've stated, but I'm also being kind of harsh in evaluating them. Non beer-geek type people are okay with them. They aren't much more oaky than the (to me way overoaked) Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard I had a couple years ago. I think they're well on their way to being nice.

05/20/08 12:25 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Thanks for the input. I am just begining to plan an oak barrel beer, a wild brew of some sort, and there is not a lot of material on preconditioning oak barrels. I am working with a new barrel and have only seen reference to conditioning a new barrel on the biohazard lambic page. Your posts here have been the only other material I have seen on the subject, and my only winemaker friend thinks I'm nuts aging a beer in a small barrel.

The procedure I saw regarding the caustic/alkali solutions was followed by an acid stabilization using citric and sulfite (pH 3). It actually outlined complete water changes every three days for two weeks followed by alkaline solution for two weeks twice, followed by citric/sulfite.

I have also seen recommendations for storing barrels with citric/sulfite between batches just to keep the barrel full. In part I am wondering whether the citric/sulfite does anything more than filling and emptying the barrel? Again thanks for the input.

I have been cautious on using something like barrelkleen because it is so caustic, and I don't see a big difference in the final solution from something like baking soda. On the other hand, the product is out there on the market, and it seems at least some wine makers are using it for something.

I have a new oak barrel that I have been doing water changes in every three days for a little over two weeks. Each water change is with sulfite, and I am topping up the water daily as the barrel absorbs moisture. The water has gone from being very strongly oaked and brown to much less oaky and relatively clear in this three week period. My current plan is to age a stout for at least a few weeks in it before I start a wild beer.

05/20/08 12:57 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
"In part I am wondering whether the citric/sulfite does anything more than filling and emptying the barrel?"

That's basically what I was trying to say--the solution becomes extremely oaky-smelling and even takes on a tan color, so it seems to be stripping out lots of "oakiness."

"On the other hand, the product [barrelkleen] is out there on the market, and it seems at least some wine makers are using it for something."

Indeed, but not to intentionally strip out oak. Winemakers often pay a great deal of money for nice oak, and they really do not want to strip it out. Once the oak is gone, the barrel is worth much less to them.

I do not know to what extent the alkali solutions strip out oak, versus acid or water. tripel beam can maybe explain more about the use of barrelkleen or other compounds.

Your plan sounds great, in any case. Maybe you should put some citric acid in the next change of water, and see if the solution becomes more oaky at the next change? Then try the same with baking soda? You could solve this once and for all...

tripel beam
05/20/08 09:41 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
What makes wood difficult is that liquids impede the surface of the wood and you cannot sanitize it. The way we get around this in wineries is with heat, pressure and getting rid of "old or infected" wood. We hit the inside of the barrels with a barrel washing tool that works with a pressure washer to run at 600-700 psi and 150 deg. F. Still things like brett and acetobacter will still live inside the barrel, so barrels are never kept more than 4/5 years in most cases. A lot of wineries use O3/Ozone for cleaning barrels (don't want to breathe in too much of that stuff. KMBS w/Citric works great KMBS w/Tartaric even better. Always look inside and smell a barrel before going into it.

Only time Ive used Sodium percarb on a barrel is to strip out VA Then neutralized w/ sulfur tartaric. We don't do this much but w/ barrels only a year old, that you just paid 1000 dollars for a year ago, it's rough.

I just heard of a company that removes the barrel head and does a dry ice blast for 100 a barrel. They're in santa rosa Ca I think. Supposed to make 2 year wood like 1 year.

Hope you don't get too paranoid about keeping your barrels clean like how I am.

05/21/08 10:42 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
VA = volatile acidity?

I think brewers are quite the opposite in almost every way. We WANT our 1-year barrels to be like 5-year barrels, and we DON'T want them to be all that clean.

After pressure washing, do you empty the washing water from the barrel using a pump?

05/21/08 10:59 AM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
I wouldn't say opposite. Much of what I've read in wild brews suggests that (on a commercial scale) brewers are pressure washing and cleaning barrels (and soaking with sulfite)between fermentations much the same as winemakers. My first post was about taking out the oaky flavors, so in that sense, I think some characteristics of a 5 year old barrel are more desirable than others.

While I am not planning on high temperature pressure washing, I do plan on cleaning the barrel and re-pitching my desirable micros with new batches. I am sure that some organisms will take up residence in the wood and hope they are the ones I desire.

Balance is one of my goals though, and I believe repitching will be necessary on a regular basis. Just like re-pitching on a yeast cake, I would expect mutation as well as natural selection to take out some of what I initially pitch. Eventually you have to put something back in.

tripel beam
05/21/08 01:44 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
Volatile Acidity, yes.

pressure washing bung-side down, water doesn't stay in the barrel

05/21/08 02:23 PM  
Re: Oak Barrel Treatment
I think maybe I didn't phrase things clearly--what I mean is that I think most brewers would want to eliminate oakiness from new barrels, while winemakers want to preserve it. And while most winemakers would kill all of the resident bugs in a barrel if they could, most brewers would want to preserve them (but may wish to reduce their numbers somewhat).

On the other hand there does seem to be a sentiment among some traditional lambic brewers (Cantillon and Boon) that they want to come as close as possible to actually sterilizing the barrels between uses. I am not sure whether this is because they believe that process actually leads to better beer, or if it's based more on an aesthetic/traditional desire (i.e. to avoid "repitching" bugs from a previous batch, or even the perception of that).

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