I personally haven’t yet developed the “refined” palate to enjoy oaked beers. I have had a few beers that were decent, but because of the overwhelming prescence of oak I usually shy away from even attempting a taste. Oak is a lot like Citra hops for me, too much in a recipe and it seems like its the only flavor I can taste. After listening to the Brewing Network podcast with Shea Comfort discussing oaking techniques and wine yeasts, I decided to brew a beer where the oak is subtle and nuanced, adding a layer of flavor complimenting the base beer rather than taking over the flavor profile.
I brewed two ten gallon batches using Wyeast 1028 London Ale. I split each batch and oaked one carboy while leaving the other plain as a control. First up was the batch of English IPA that would get dosed with medium toast French oak cubes. The recipe was pretty straight forward with mostly English base malt (Maris Otter) with a low and medium English crystal malt for body. Hops were Fuggles and Kent Goldings all the way through. According to Shea, the key to proper oaking is adding the cubes along with the dry hops right as primary fermentation is beginning to slow down. The idea is that some of cellulose and other sugars in the cubes will be consumed by the actively fermenting yeast and meld with the yeast esters and the spicy, floral and herbal aromas of the dry hops. Using cubes is preferred over chips or spirals because the shape allows for differing levels of toast going from darkest of the outside to ligher on the inside. This gives a greater depth of flavor rather than the single homogenous toast you get from thin oak chips. Because of their shape and thickness, cubes need to be in contact with the beer longer than chips or spirals.
To prepare the oak, I weighed out 1 oz. of medium toast French oak and put them into a coffee mug along with enough water to cover. I heated them in the microwave just below boiling to sanitize them and them dumped the water and cubes directly into the carboy. The cubes ended up staying in the primary a week longer than I planned (3 weeks total due to a bout with pneumonia) but after giving the beer a few weeks to age the flavors finally came together.
One thing that I found during subsequent tastings was the necessity to drink this beer warmer, between 50-55F, and to knock out some carbonation by swirling the glass which really made the hops jump out of the glass. I really liked both the oaked an non-oaked versions. The oak added a delicious notes of cinnamon, allspice, and sweet fruit (almost kiwi-like) while adding a body enhancing mouthfeel. I think Shea chose this type of oak to compliment the spicy hops as well as the baking spice flavors from the British crystals and it worked beautifully. I think next batch I will definitely try to limit the amount of time the oak is in contact with the beer to fine tune the timing of the beer so the hops peak at the same time as the oak. Next up: Oaked Series Part Two: Brown Porter.