A couple of months back my friend Tom’s father picked up a couple of 5 gallon bourbon casks. I managed to swipe one of them and take it home while no one was looking.
The thing smelled so good that I couldn’t help pulling the cork out and sticking my nose inside nearly every time I walked by. I had some Cascade IPA in secondary that was begging to have something different done with it so I decided to go for it.
This was a relatively freshly emptied cask. It was emptied by the distiller only a few months before and had been kept corked so it wasn’t dried out and was clean inside.
I’ve read various methods of sanitizing and cleaning oak but I hate the idea of purging the woody goodness. In my albeit inexperienced opinion, the whole point is to infect your beer with the bugs that live in the oak. As long as the wood has been used recently I don’t really want to use any harsh chemicals to clean it up.
At the end of the day, if I happen to be wrong, it’s just beer and I can make more. So naturally, I’m all in.
Again, the cask hadn’t been empty for very long and was from a known source. If you stumble on one in a back alley somewhere and you insist on using it you probably want to clean it out with some kind of barrel cleaning solvent. They’re out there. Check with your local home brew store.
In this case, I did want to give the cask a rinse and I didn’t want to introduce anything new into it so I mixed up some Star San just to make sure the water was clean. I poured it in, swished it around, and dumped it out. After that, I racked the IPA into the cask, placed an air lock, and let it sit for about four weeks.
Once emptied, I boiled some water and used it to rinse the cask out. There was some yeast residue inside that I wanted to get rid of. Since then I’ve filled it with some nineteen month old vanilla bourbon mead. It’s coming along nicely.
Something my friend Tom suggested trying is to store the cask with a fifth of bourbon in it between uses. This will succeed in keeping the wood wet so that it won’t shrink. We’re hoping it also may “recharge” it with bourbon flavor. At the very least we should get some excellent tasting bourbon out of it.
What kind of experience have you had with aging your beer with wood?