Does Aging Increase Alcohol Content? The Facts Explained
Homebrewing alcoholic beverages is a complicated, scientific, and precise process that requires a lot of planning and forethought. When you first start, you might have a few questions regarding how the procedure can affect a beverage. One of the most common ones is whether aging can influence the alcohol content of a liquid.
Aging spirits, wine, or beer in barrels can increase the alcohol content depending on the temperature. Typically, though, the increase in alcohol content isn’t very significant.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why alcohol content increases during the aging process. I’ll also provide some alternative and simpler ways to increase alcohol content in your homemade beverages.
Therefore, if you’re a homebrewer who wants to know how to make a strong drink (or avoid increasing alcohol content by accident), this is the right article for you.
Does Alcohol Content Increase With Aging?
Alcohol content can increase with aging. If spirits, wine, or beer are aged in barrels at high temperatures, the water in the mixtures can evaporate and penetrate the barrel’s wood. If water molecules escape from the barrel, the mixture becomes less diluted and more alcoholic.
As spirits, wine, or beer sit and age in barrels, the alcohol content will typically increase, but only slightly. This is because ethanol molecules, also known as ethyl alcohol, are fairly large molecules that have difficulty penetrating the barrels’ wood. Ethanol is the alcoholic part of your aged beverages, so the ethanol’s inability to escape the barrel means that alcoholic liquids are unlikely to decrease in alcohol content if stored in a barrel.
The alcohol content may, however, increase, but only if the barrel is stored in a hot climate. Water molecules are much smaller than ethanol molecules, so they can penetrate the wood and will be inclined to do so when the pressure inside the barrel gets to be too much.
In hot temperatures, the liquid expands and increases in volume. This, in turn, increases the pressure inside the barrels, and the water molecules will escape through the wood because they are small enough to do so.
This means that the liquid left behind contains the same amount of ethanol molecules as when it was barreled because those cannot escape; however, it will have fewer water molecules. In other words, the alcohol is less diluted, which means its volume percentage will be increased.
For this reason, alcoholic beverages that are aged in hot climates, such as Texas or Arizona, are typically higher proof than alcohol from other areas.
Some manufacturers and home brewers add water to their alcohol when they remove it from the barrel and before bottling to counteract this.
How To Increase Alcohol Content in Beer, Wine, and Spirits
If your goal is to increase the alcohol content, it is best not to rely on the slight increase that may occur within the barrel. There are better ways to make a strong drink. Federal law prohibits individuals from making distilled spirits at home, so I’ll just discuss wine and beer here. The following table outlines some quick ideas for how to increase alcohol content in these beverages:
|Add more sugar.
|Add more sugar.
|Add a second round of yeast.
|Make yeast starter.
|Use yeast with high alcohol tolerance.
|Ensure the container has plenty of air.
Now, let’s go into more detail about each of these methods.
Increase Alcohol ABV in Beer
To increase the alcohol content in beer, add more sugar during the fermentation process to increase the beer’s alcohol by volume. During this process, the yeast eats sugar and converts it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Therefore, if there’s more sugar for the yeast to eat, then more alcohol will be produced.
You can even experiment with different kinds of sugar, such as brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey, to mix up the flavor and get a higher ABV. However, most beers use corn sugar or dry malt extract.
However, it’s possible to overdo it with sugar.
The more sugar there is the more pressure on the yeast. Additionally, the more alcohol that is produced, the longer fermentation takes. You can also accidentally mess up the taste of your beer.
You can also increase the alcohol content of beer by adding another round of yeast to the brew. The best yeast for this purpose should have a high alcohol tolerance to survive the already alcoholic conditions in the mixture.
Incease Alcohol ABV in Wine
Wine is similar to beer in that adding more sugar will increase the alcohol content. To avoid having too high a sugar concentration at one time, use a wine hydrometer to read the Potential Alcohol content. When this number gets close to zero, add more sugar, so the fermentation process continues.
Most wine-making kits come with hydrometers. However, my favorite hydrometer is the Triple Scale Hydrometer, which is part of the Raffermier Brix and Gravity Test on Amazon.com. This hydrometer helps ensure that the alcohol, balling, and gravity measurements are suitable. It is also extremely accurate and can measure potential alcohol by volume from 0% to 20%.
Adding more sugar to the mixture gives the yeast more to eat and, therefore, more to turn into alcohol. The following video explains this process in detail:
Another way to increase the alcohol content in wine is to make a yeast starter two days before you start making the beverage. This way, the yeast is already strong and ready to eat when it is added to the wine.
Finally, while the wine is fermenting, ensure that whatever container the wine is in has plenty of air. This helps energize the yeast and allows it to multiply more efficiently. The more yeast there is, the more sugar you can add, and the higher the alcohol percentage will be.
Aging is an incredibly important part of making liquor. When spirits go into a barrel, they are mostly clear and flavorless. While in the barrel, they pick up their flavor and color from the wood of the barrel.
Aged spirits, such as whiskey, get their darker color from the barrel’s wood. Most vodkas and gins are not aged, which is why they are clear.
The most important aspect of aging for spirits, though, is what it does for the flavor. When it is aging, the spirit is in contact with the wood for a long period of time, so it gets some woody flavor. To play with different flavor profiles, distilleries can change the kind of wood they use for their barrels.
Most barrels are made from European Oak or American Oak. European Oak has a thinner grain and a higher tannin level than its American counterpart, so most whiskies that are aged in barrels made of this oak have a more bitter and spicy flavor.
American Oak has a tighter grain and more pentagalloyl glucose. Whiskies distilled in barrels of this material are sweeter and usually contain notes of vanilla.
Reused barrels can add a whole other layer of complexity to the flavor. For example, some distilleries take barrels that were used to age wine to get a distinct flavor and aroma in their spirits. Here are some common barrels that are used for aging spirits:
- Burgundy and Bordeaux. These barrels come from the wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Whiskies distilled in these barrels often have a berry-like and winey flavor, making for a unique drinking experience. The deep red hue of these whiskies looks stunning in any decanter.
- Sherry. Barrels previously used for sherry are varied and can produce many different flavors. For example, Fino sherry barrels add a fruity flavor to whiskey, whereas Amontillado barrels contribute more nuttiness to a flavor.
- Rum. Barrels that previously held rum can provide flavors of almond and molasses to any spirit.
- Chardonnay. Spirits can get crisp and tropical notes from aging in a barrel that previously held chardonnay.
Aging is an essential part of the spirit-making process. Without this step, spirits would be clear and taste like ethanol and little else. Through aging, distillers can experiment and develop interesting new flavors for all to enjoy.
Wine is aged in barrels between fermentation and bottling. The aging process can be anywhere from a few months to years, and during this time, the wine’s flavor becomes more distinct and mature.
For their barrels, winemakers can choose between American Oak, European Oak, Chestnut, Acaia, Iberian Oak, and English Oak. Another important decision is the size of the barrel: smaller barrels contribute more of their oaky flavor to the wine because there is more contact between the wood and the liquid.
Oak can contribute a variety of different flavors to wine, including:
Not only is aging in barrels essential for the flavor of wine, but it also influences a wine’s longevity in a bottle. Oak contains tannin, which is a naturally occurring polyphenol, and when the tannin is transferred to the wine, it strengthens and stabilizes the tannins in the wine from the grape skins.
Oak barrels also protect the wine from light damage. Light can destabilize flavor compounds in wine and alter the taste, but the beverage is protected from this possibility when properly stored in a barrel.
Finally, aging wine in a barrel ensures that the wine stays still throughout the aging process. This allows for chemical reactions to occur without interference that could otherwise disrupt these processes.
It isn’t necessary to age beer in a barrel, but the practice is growing in popularity. However, there are some factors you should keep in mind before you decide to barrel age beer:
- Only some kinds of beers are compatible with oak flavors. Barrel-aging works best on beers with high alcohol content and strong flavors, such as stouts and ales. Beers with fresh flavors, such as IPAs and wheat beers, will most likely clash with the oak flavor transferred from the barrel.
- Aging can take a long time. If you want to drink your beer right away or are on a deadline for a festival or competition, you’ll need to plan accordingly. It could take a year or more for beer to absorb some of the deeper flavor notes of the barrel.
- Beer-aging works best at a consistent temperature. Beer ages best at a consistent temperature between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (13 and 16 degrees Celsius). If you’re not able to keep the temperature well-regulated, your beer may not turn out the way you imagined.
With those factors in mind, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of aging beer in a barrel:
- You can use used barrels to experiment with different flavors. Beer will take on notes of the flavor of what was in the barrel previously, so by purchasing used barrels, you can play with different flavors and see what works and what doesn’t.
- Barrel-aging beer allows for slower oxygenation. Oxygen is the enemy of brewing beer, as it can cause the final product to taste musty and disagreeable. Slow exposure, however, creates pleasant and subtle flavors.
Not all beers are compatible with barrel-aging. For example, hoppy beers don’t perform well in barrels because the hop aroma is unstable and volatilizes quickly. Additionally, beers that are lower ABV styles have a higher risk of microbial contamination, and they have a shorter shelf life. Therefore, they should be enjoyed right away instead of sitting in a barrel for months or years.
On the other hand, highly alcoholic beers are excellent for barrel-aging. The higher amount of alcohol shields against microbes that could damage a beer’s flavor.
Aging is a crucial part of the spirit, wine, or beer-making process. Although some water molecules can escape from the barrel during aging, especially in warmer temperatures, aging typically does not increase alcohol content enough for this to be a concern. If you want to increase the alcohol content of your homemade beverages, there are better ways to do it than letting the aging do the work.