Adding Oak Chips to Your Beer

I was recently given a bag of wonderful oak cask chips from Scott at Cooper Workshop up in Ayrshire. They take used whisky casks from all over Scotland, break them down and feed them through “Bertha” their 2001 Heizohack wood chipper.

Usually the first thing I would do is throw the chips onto charcoal and smoke some meat, but, I’ve always wanted to try making an oaked beer and this is the perfect opportunity.

Oaking beer is nothing new. Innis and Gunn have been selling oak cask aged beer very successfully for the last decade or more and several other craft breweries age their beer in used oak barrels.

It would be impractical for most homebrewers to try aging beer in used casks. You’d need to brew a huge batch to fill it but also the logistics of storing and moving it around are far from easy.

Instead, most homebrewers will add a small amount of oak chips or oak cubes to their beer to the same effect.

Having read up on this, it is clear that nobody really agrees on the best technique.

The variables are:

  • what kind of oak to use (regular chips, whisky barrels etc chip, chunks, cubes etc)
  • how much oak to use (I have seen anything from 20g to over 500g for a 20L batch)
  • how to sanitise the oak (see below)
  • when to add it to the beer (primary, secondary & keg all suggested)
  • how long to leave it in the beer (I’ve seen a couple of days through to 6 months)
  • how long to leave the beer to condition afterwards (anything from a week to a year)

So far, pretty much everything I’ve read suggests different approaches. I opted to go middle of the road on most variables and then I can tweak next time.

Taking what I could from the various websites and articles I decided on the following approach:

  • Jamaican rum cask oak chips (this is what Scott set me)
  • 50g for a 20L brew
  • Steam sanitised
  • Added to the secondary
  • Leave for 1 week then test
  • Condition for 1 month then test

I had the perfect beer on the go – my Bad Santa Christmas Beer. It is a 7% rich, malty brew with 5 different grain, maple syrup, cinnamon sticks vanilla pods.  Last year I added some cherry syrup to the secondary but this year I’m going with the oak chips.

One aspect I was particularly nervous about was the sanitation.

Options as I see it are:

No sanitation – Probably okay, but do you want to risk a batch of beer on it?
Boil - good to sanitise but I thought too much of the good flavours would leech out into the water
Soak in Star-San Sanitiser- impossible to know how much star-san would be soaked into the oak, or how much oak wold leech out into the solution. Also just didn’t feel right!
Soak in bourbon – I like this idea. People soak the chips in bourbon for a week which sanitises as well as adding some great flavours. I did worry whether the bourbon would be strong enough to kill off ALL nasties but I reckon it would be fine. I did not choose this route though as I already have whisky barrel oak chips and did not want to overpower the subtle aromas and flavours I already have.
Oven roast – good and would add a toasty flavour. As with the bourbon soaking, I did not want to alter the flavour of the chips I have
Steam – I chose this option. It meant the least amount of flavour would be lost and it would not affect the flavour of the chips. I chose to gently steam for 15 mins. Then allowed the chips to cool down in the steamer before adding to the beer.

I steamed the chips in a muslin bag with a metal spoon added to help the chips sink into the beer.

As I write, the chips are 3 days into their week with the beer. I may sample it after 5 days to see what’s happening.

I’ll update this article after Christmas with the results of this tasty sounding experiment.

Bad Santa Recipe

Here’s the revised Bad Santa recipe. I’ve upped the ABV this year from last time I made it as I have a little more time for it to condition.

Brewer: Woodstock
Batch Size: 19.00 l Style: Christmas/Winter Specialty Spice Beer (21B)
Boil Size: 29.11 l Style Guide: BJCP 2008
Color: 24.6 EBC Equipment: Pot (13 Gal/50 L) – BIAB
Bitterness: 23.2 IBUs Boil Time: 60 min
Est OG: 1.065 (15.9° P) Mash Profile: Single Infusion, Light Body, No Mash Out
Est FG: 1.013 SG (3.3° P) Fermentation: Ale, Two Stage
ABV: 6.9% Taste Rating: 30.0


Amount Name Type #
4.37 kg Pilsner (2 Row) UK (2.0 EBC) Grain 1
374.5 g Caramel/Crystal Malt – 20L (39.4 EBC) Grain 2
374.5 g Caramunich Malt (110.3 EBC) Grain 3
374.5 g Munich Malt (17.7 EBC) Grain 4
22.8 g Black (Patent) Malt (985.0 EBC) Grain 5
374.5 g Maple Syrup (69.0 EBC) Grain 6
27.4 g Northern Brewer [8.5%] – Boil 60 min Hops 7
0.30 tsp Irish Moss (Boil 10 min) Misc 8
1.00 Vanilla Bean (Boil 10 min) Misc 9
3.00 Cinnamon Stick (Boil 10 min) Misc 10
1 pkgs Irish Ale Yeast (White Labs #WLP004) Yeast 11