Storing and aging wine has always been a problem. Early mankind drank wine & mead fresh. As a result, giving very little time for oxidation to happen. However, soon we discovered that aging makes the off-flavors go away. It improves the clarity significantly. But where to find a vessel good enough to store wine for a year or two?
Terracotta amphora was the first such vessel. However, they were really susceptible to breakage. Also, the porous surface created a lot of vapor loss and oxidation problems. Resin & beeswax lining was another preferred solution. But it reduces capacity a lot. Furthermore, it makes it impossible to clean/reuse the container.
An oak barrel is used since two thousand years ago. Barrels are made from hardwood. Primarily because hardwood was available in plenty. Also the thin shavings could survive transportation by sea/cart. Remember, spring suspension and pneumatic tires were yet not discovered. The tannin leached by alcohol in the wine from the oak improved the taste. This made it easier for connoisseurs to estimate how old the wine was. The practice got stuck soon.
Oak is hard to get nowadays. As better storage/packaging containers are available which don’t react with the fluids. Yet human tastes are hard to change.
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For the home brewers oak barrels are a bad choice:
- A standard barrel measures 159 liters. This is too large for most home brew purposes.
- A smaller barrel will have a larger surface area to volume ratio. As a result, there would be more tannins. This increases the possibility of off-flavors from excess wood.
- Wine barrels in the industry is subjected to a methodical ritual to sanitation. The bacteria can hide deep within the surface of the wood (even hardwood). Chemicals are hard to dry out. Therefore, the cleaning involves burning/smoking the interior of the barrel and scraping the lining. These are hard to be practiced by a home brewer or a hobbyist.
- Angel share (evaporation during storage) as a % of barrel capacity is higher if the barrels are small and planks are thin. This is usually the case for 2-5 gallon home brew barrels. Also, the lost wine gets replaced by air/headspace. Hence making it more prone to oxidation.
- Unless you have temperature & Humidity regulated cellar the minor differences will only cause the wood to expand/contract unevenly. It will also cause leakage in barrels. It is a tedious task to apply beeswax & testing barrels for cracks. This situation aggravates when such beautiful glass options are available.
This is why Arishtam has introduced tasted French oak chips. These are aseptic and one-time use chips. They can be measured and added to the glass bottles/plastic aging secondary containers to get the European wine flavors. After your hobby is over, you will not be left with a large barrel which occupies half the living room. Arishtam aims to democratize home brewing. Oak chips are one key ingredient in this.