This episode of Know Your Styles has been temporarily interrupted to bring you an article by Dylan Mosley of 33 Wine Bar fame. Dylan took it upon himself to teach us all a little something about oak. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
Oak and Beer
MmmmmmmmmmBeeeeer. HS knew what he was talking about. However, I’ll admit that I grew a little tired of all those Oaked up Bombs that came out of the woodwork like popped collars, Crocs, and big-ole-sunglasses. I digress. So here I am readin’ and writin’ bout’ wood. Oak that is. I’m pointing myself toward a new dawn of understanding and sympathy to Quercus Alba (American White Oak) and Quercus Petrae and Sissilis (French Oaks). So if I’m headed down that dark path of mis-information then so are you and we’re both gonna learn a few things that Wikipedia and Google can both easily provide to anybody with 2 minutes to spare and a healthy index finger. We’ll learn some Latin, try our best to nod along with chemical reactions, and release our inner wood sprite. PS. Know your Styles has been temporarily hijacked and is now Know your Shite.
The Mostly True Account of Oak.
It’s not a mistake that Oak is the wood of choice for Wine and Beer. Oak is a legendary tree; often sacrificed to Thor (hey it’s a tall tree that gets hit by lightning a lot.), the Druids couldn’t get enough of it- even carrying around acorn nuts to stave (look! STAVE!) off ageing. Naturalist Galus Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) recorded Druidic rituals that reverenced oak/mistletoe (mistletoe on oak trees was the imprint of the Hand of God according to the googles) and oak is the ‘tree of doors’ leading to other dimensions (Rod Serling eat your heart out) All of this is to say that since Oak has proven itself as so strong and durable that it gets a lot of street cred with the ancients. Granit Oak, Bartek, Gernikako Arbola, Queen Elizabeth Oak, Kongeegen, Major Oak, Ivenack Oak, Stelmuze Oak, Merlin’s Oak, Angel Oak, Emancipation Oak, Tree that Owns Itself and Son of the Tree that Owns Itself are just a few of the named oaks of lore we’re talking about. As a side note- Son of the Tree that Owns Itself is totally cool.
So, just what are the aspects of this tree that makes it so nifty? Well, for starters it’s dense. It has a density of 0.75 g/cm3 which didn’t mean anything to me until I looked up other densities of treesthe Janka Scale of Hardness is the standard measure for wood density – Balsa=100, Mahogany= 800, Boreal= 1023, Red Oak= 1290, Ash= 1320, White Oak= 1360 (same as Coffee Bean, huh, who knew?), African Paduak= 1725, Lignum Vitae= 4500. And who is going to make a barrel out of Lignum Vitae (Latin for wood of life)? Crazy people. And Dogfish Head (Palo Santo- which if you haven’t read The New Yorker article, you should. Nov. 24, 2008 pg. 86.) Density is also correlated to pest resistance; that must be why you never see an oak tree with a can of RAID.
Oak’s pest resistance is also increased by virtue of tannins that are usually toxic in quantity to consumers. Tannins (polyphenols) are located primarily in the bark- inside vacuoles (little intra-cellular suitcases full of whatever the cell happens to need) and in waxy structures like leaf, bud, seed, root, and stem tissues. FYI- leaching tannins from leaves and bark (usually from fallen trees and dead wood) into a nearby stream, pool, pond etc produces conditions for Black Water – an acidic, low nutrient, and tea colored water. (Check out Southern Tiers Black Water series; though I doubt they would describe their beers as being acidic, low nutrient, tea colored beverages- note to Marketing.) Just so tannins don’t feel beat up on, they do help protect wine and beer from oxidizing- that is part of the reason the highly tannic nebbiolo grape improves its taste and aroma with very long in-barrel times (and with that- my wine shout out is overalmost)
What else? Well, here is where we go down two big paths. One path is related to wine barrel making and the other to spirit barrel making- the beer industry goes Industrial Age and ponies up the dough for stainless – no more of that Bronze age crap for us! But sometimes we lament our past and spring for a few old-school barrels and remember what beer has been for centuries.
In France there are 5 major forests where oak is harvested- Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais, and Vosges. Obviously the French have been making wine for a long time and their barrel making has evolved to reflect this national passion. French barrels are started with splitting their staves and outdoor curing for 24 months. This curing time does double duty – it both mellows the wood and allows some of the tannins to drop out (next time you are in France look under a stack of oak staves, you’ll see a bunch of grayish dust – remember Black water? Yup- we is learning. Splitting the staves does less damage to xylem cells that contain lactones. Lactones are cyclic esters that impart a noticeable vanillin and custard overtone (both taste and aroma). Lactones are very apparent in American spirit barrels that utilize sawn staves- necessarily releasing more of the compound. Additionally American barrels are commonly made from kilned wood. Kilned wood does not enjoy the martini by the pool, the beach strolls, and deep tissue massage that traditional French Coopered Oak does.
These differences in process have less to do with quality and more to do with intention. American barrels are driven by the bourbon, whisky, and American wine industry which all rely on a heavier oaken hand to balance their intense products. Of course, as the industry faces increased competition from all over the world, work practices change, new techniques and methods become adopted, and it becomes less easy to say “American method is this” and “French method is that”. Just look at a bottle of Glenmorangie Astar and check out its neck label – its proof that barrel making is still an art and worthy of expensive marketing campaigns. (PS. GO MISSOURI OAK!)
American Oak comes from all over. We don’t have specific forests as such, but the eastern states and MO (GO MISSOURI OAK!), AR, TN, KY, MN, WI, OR, and PN all harvest oak. Scientists can actually deduce which part of the US or France (or Hungary, or wherever the tree came from) a particular barrel came from by using mass spectrometers and comparing climate notes, indigenous pests and lichens, soil samples and such. Neat. I can do the Vulcan Greeting with my fingers.
Okay, okay. On to beer. Why put beer into Oak Barrels? Obviously the biggest reason nowadays is to flavor the brew since most companies still ferment in stainless and only use barrels as a treatment. Lots of brewers get barrels from distilleries and wineries after they have had other crappola in them like bourbon, whisky(ey), vino, maple syrup, shade-grown organic free-range no-gmo all-natural Harvard-educated black strap mollases. Anywhoooo. Most barrels are only used a time or two since whatever lived in that barrel previously becomes less apparent the more it is leached out over time. Sort-of like the more Capt. James T Kirk wails with ‘dramatic soliloquies, pregnant pauses, and staccato diatribes’ the less you believe him(source, TVLand.com).
However, some breweries/brewers use barrels for more than just a one-night stand. A lot of American Brewers are getting props for using barrels for more than just a prop. Russian River Brewing is a shining example (as many others are, but I’m the one writing this and I REALLY like Temptation.). Rotating barrels from fresh to used is part of the ongoing process/philosophy at Russian River and this management has in turn created a new beer over time – Beautification. Beautification utilizes a lot of wood that has become Kirkinated- I mean, lost its original flavor. As barrels used for maturation of Temptation (Chardonnay), Temptation (Pinot), and Consecration (Cab Sav) become less specific they get bounced down the line until considered Dead Wood. These ‘Deadwood’ barrels harbor a lot of intentionally grown nasty awesomeness like brettt, lacto and pedio and simply embody the efforts of the brewery at large. In these barrels Beautification sits and waits, passing from pupa to butterfly! From fire to phoenix! From Beetle to BumbleBee! From Joel MST3K to Mike MST3K (discuss)! Final offerings from RR are a blend of multiple barrels (usually) to get whatever mysterious textures, flavors or aromas Vinny is looking for. Cool Beans.
So spit it out Dylan! Sum it up! Make a point already! End this godforsaken rant and let people get back to the forum section of this website! Okay, well, certainly there is a lot more info on google and wikipedia about Oak, but you got fingers! Look things up like “eugenol’, the phenol that creates a smokey and spicey clove-like aromatic. Look up ‘oak chips’, which explain why some beers are labeled as ‘matured ON oak’ rather than IN it. “Solera”, the process of aging wines, beers, vinegars, and brandy(s) by fractional blending. Check out ‘The Best Page in the Universe” (NSFW? Depends on where you work.) – no info about oak that I’ve found, but its funny. Finally, I am by no means an authority on any of this – if you find a mistake you are not alone and bringing it to the attention of anyone else simply makes no sense. Finally, did you read all this?
Token list of available beers to try No particular order Jolly Pumpkin Oro De Calabaza, Russian River Temptation, Sam Smith Stingo, Xyauyu, CBS, Cantillion (anything), Barrel Aged Two Hearted, Oak Aged Yeti, Cask aged JW Lees, etc BTW, yes, BBL aged Two Hearted is made up. Sad Trombone.
Ps, Eric, yes I know this was supposed to be sent to Mike two months ago. Sue me.