GET OVER the BARREL
Or other easy ways to OAK your mead
Oak barrels are a part of the history of making and storing mead and wine for a thousand years – or more. Barrel aging is the step that transforms ordinary mead into something beyond the ordinary. BUT they are a labor-intensive, order potentially troublesome and hard to handle. If not used constantly, illness they can dry out and leak. They are hard to keep clean, dosage and a five-gallon barrel can cost $200. So why bother aging your mead in oak?
Oak can make a tremendous difference in the quality of your mead. In big red pyments, or elderberry melomels, oak brings a softness and complexity, due to the conversion of harsh tannins. In traditional mead, and some white pyments — particularly Chardonnays— it can give additional aromatic qualities and a tannic bite/dryness that make the mead special. Two weeks in a barrel can mature your mead as much as a year in a carboy and in the process, bestow a subtle but attractive oakiness that separates your mead from the commonplace.
BARREL ALTERNATIVES TYPES of OAK TOAST LEVELS
If you’d rather not buy a barrel, or your spouse says there is no way you are going to keep “that thing” in the house, there are easier and less expensive ways to add oak to your mead. Here are five ways to simulate fermenting and aging in an oak cask.
OAK EXTRACT: Of the five, oak extract is the least satisfactory. It creates some oak flavor, but if enough is used to be truly noticeable it may leave a harsh taste. It is, however, fast and easy to use. Extract is produced commercially by steeping oak in alcohol, which is then bottled. You can buy oak extract at a home winemaking shop; the bottle will tell you how much to add.
OAK POWDER: This is little more than oak sawdust and can be quite messy when racking. If you use oak powder, put it in a sanitized nylon you robbed from your wife’s drawer. They provide fast extraction, so check after two to three days. Leaving them in longer than that does not increase the oak effect.
OAK CHIPS: Oak chips give more oak flavor, than powder and provide fast extraction. But they are messy to remove, may be of doubtful sterility, and sometimes contain amounts of sawdust that are hard to remove from the mead. On the other hand, it is possible to buy high-quality French oak chips. If your spouse will allow it, toast them in the oven to intensify the flavors, (be sure you don’t burn them), but I have seen different toast levels available.
Because they are so thin, most of the available tannins are pulled out within two to three days. Leaving them in longer than that does not increase the oak effect. It is the quantity you use that changes the degree of oakiness you are trying to achieve. In general use only two ounces in 5 gallons for traditional mead and light melomels. You can use 3-4 oz. in big red pyments, or elderberry melomels. Depending on the base style, use 2-4 oz. in braggots.
NOTE: If you do use oak chips, thoroughly rinse them either in water or a sulphite solution before putting them in the mead. This will remove loose sawdust particles and minimize the risk of infection.
OAK STICKS: These are a giant leap over the use of oak chips. They are split, not sawed from the lumber, and have smooth surfaces on all sides. Usually, they’re about one inch square by about one foot long and should be split lengthwise into smaller pieces – this increases the surface area available. These are then placed in the secondary fermenter for several weeks. Begin taste-testing the mead after the first 2-3 weeks, and every week after, until it reaches the right amount of oakiness you prefer.
NOTE: They too, must be sanitized by rinsing in a strong sulphite solution, to minimize the risk of infection.
OAK CUBES: These are the newest alternative to barrels, available to amateurs. They are manufactured by StaVin who claims “You will achieve the best results by fermenting with the Cubes and leaving them in the wine for the duration (until filtering and bottling).” Unlike chips, cubes offer a slower, more complex extraction and come in American, French, Hungarian oak, as well as Medium, Medium Plus or Heavy Toast Levels. StaVin claims their three year seasoning and slow fire toasting, to the same depth as in the production of fire toasted barrels, creates the same traditional flavors found in those barrels.
The recommended dosage rate, for a new-barrel impact in 5 gal is 2-3 oz. of cubes for 2 months minimum. The cubes are sealed in 1 oz., 2 oz., 8 oz., and 1 pound poly-metal bags to retain aromatic compounds and protect the cubes from contamination. Simply open the bag and add the cubes directly to the mead.
A word of caution: No matter which form of oak you use, remember, you can always add more oak, but you cannot remove it. Do not overpower your mead with oak. Only time may help mellow the effects of over-oaking. When your wine has reached the level of oakiness you wish, rack it off the oak into a clean container. If you think more oak or different oak is needed, follow these steps again.
About TYPES of OAK
French Oak is the most highly regarded wood for use in winemaking. This high demand means that it costs more than the other varieties. It is known for its subtle flavor and bouquet. It has a high tannin content that takes longer to age. It is used in a wide variety of wines – from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
American Oak has a much more pronounced aroma than French Oak. It also imparts more flavors faster – but it mellows sooner. It is used in many big Italian or Spanish red wines as well as Zinfandels and Bordeaux style wines. It makes a bold statement in a Chardonnay.
Hungarian Oak has many of the same properties as French Oak, but it is less intense and less expensive. This is my favorite oak for all of my meads.
About TOAST LEVELS
Heavy Toast brings pronounced caramelized, carbonized and toast flavors very quickly – it doesn’t need much contact time. It is most often used in big, bold red wines and has limited use in meads.
Medium Plus Toast is between Medium and Heavy Toast. It has aromas of honey, roasted nuts and a hint of coffee. It seems to be the ideal toast level for red wines, so it is probably best suited for the red pyments and bolder melomels – such as elderberry – and for braggots.
Medium Toast has less tannins but more bouquet, so will impart more aroma than flavor. It has a warm, sweet character with strong vanilla overtones. I believe this is the ideal toast level for all of my traditional meads and light melomels.
Use lightly toasted American oak for a coconut flavor.
Lightly toasted French oak gives a slight vanilla flavor.