Barrel Simulation Experiment

In the summer of 2006 I tried to replicate J.W. Lee’s Barrel-Aged Harvest Ale Series by soaking wood chips in alcohol and then blending with a barley wine. The Harvest Ales are truly wonderful beers and I was hoping to recreate the cohesive set of pure, clean flavors that these beers have (try them for yourself and see what I mean).

I went out and bought 4 different kinds of alcohol and three kinds of wood chips:

  • Old Fitzgerald Bourbon
  • Benjamin Australian Tawny Port
  • Sheffield Cream Sherry
  • Early Times Kentucky Whiskey
  • American Oak
  • French Oak (Medium Toast)
  • Hungarian Oak (House Toast)

As you can see I didn’t drop a lot of coin on the booze. From these I made up 5 jars of wood ‘n alcohol:

  • Bourbon / America
  • Port / French
  • Sherry / America
  • Whiskey / French
  • Bourbon / Hungarian

I made these up about 3 months before the beer was brewed.

The beer was a 5-gallon batch of Harvest Ale clone; 20 pounds of Marris Otter and a bunch of EKG (2oz FWH, 1.5oz @ 90, 1oz @ 15, 2oz @ 5) all on a WLP 002 cake. OG was 1.096 and it finished at 1.023. This was only my 9th batch so I wasn’t as well tuned-in to proper fermentation temperatures as I am now so this thing fermented a bit hot causing the yeast to throw off some green pepper fusels. From my notes it looks like ambient was around 76F! This led to a lesser beer but not enough to wreck the experiment. After 6 weeks in secondary the beer was split five ways – 4, 1 gallon jugs each with their own alcohol blend and the last gallon as a control subject. Unfortunately I didn’t write down how much of the wood & alcohol I put into each jug; it was around 4-5 chunks of wood and a short pour of the “broth”.

I left the jugs to age for a few months before bottling those. By now the peppery alcohol has died down some leaving the too-high finishing gravity to be the big flaw. The wood and alcohol essence turned out very well; not overpowering but also noticeable. I’m sipping on a Bourbon / Hungarian Oak right now and if the base beer had been better this would a contest-worth brew. The other thing I would do differently is to add a dose of fresh yeast at bottling; these things don’t have much carbonation because of the long time (2-3 months) before bottling. As mentioned earlier I used cheap alcohol for this experiment and in hindsight it was the right decision because all the nasty alcohol evaporates away after sitting in the jars for a few months.

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