Storing and aging wine has always been a problem. Early mankind drank wines & meads fresh giving very little time for oxidation to happen. However soon we discovered that aging makes the off-flavors go away, improves clarity significantly. However, where to find a vessel good enough to store wine for a year or two?
The first vessel was terracotta amphora. However, they were really susceptible to breakage and the porous surface created a lot of vapor loss and oxidation problems. Resin & beeswax lining was the preferred solution but that reduces capacity a lot. Also, it made it impossible to clean/reuse the container.
A oak barrel was used two thousand years ago when no other option was available. It was made from Hardwood primarily because that wood was available in plenty and even 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, making it easier for connoisseurs to estimate how old the wine was and the practice stuck.
Today oak is hard to get and there are better storage/packaging containers available that don’t react with the fluids, yet human tastes are hard to change. Buttload is actually a measurement term which means 108 imperial gallons (108*1.2 American Gallons)
For the home brewers oak barrels are a bad choice:
- A standard barrel measures 159 liters which is too large for most domestic/home brew purposes.
- A smaller barrel will have a larger surface area to volume ratio. Which means more tannin and the possibility of off-flavors from excess wood.
- Wine barrels in the industry is subjected to a methodical ritual to sanitation. As the bacteria can hide deep within the surface of the wood (even hardwood) and chemicals are hard to dry out, 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 (which are usually the case for 2-5 gallon home brew barrels. Also, the lost wine gets replaced by air/headspace 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 and causing leakage in barrels. Applying beeswax & testing barrels for cracks is tedious esp. when such beautiful glass options are available.
This is why Arishtam has introduced tasted french oak chips. These aseptic one time use chips 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 at democratizing the home brewing and oak chips are one key ingredient in this.