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How to Cure Your Oak Keg or Barrel
Most oak kegs will arrive to you in a dry state. Also, when you store them before or between uses, it is also generally done without liquid in the barrel. As a result, when the wood dries it will shrink, requiring you to properly cure your barrel before use. Curing it ensures that the barrel has properly expanded and the staves are tight and therefore able to retain liquid. Failing to cure your barrel will lead to your product ending up on the floor since it will leak out as fast as you can pour it in.
Curing your barrel isn't a difficult task, but that depends on what you plan to age in it. You might have to add an extra step which involves sterilizing the keg. Again, not difficult. Sterilizing the barrel is usually done when you want to age wine. This is because of the lower alcohol content in the wine makes it more suceptible to take on bacterial or fungal infections. However, with high proof distilled spirits, this isn't an issue, so just having the inside of the barrel clean is generally acceptable.
Step 1: Getting the Wood To Absorb Water and Expand
The first step of curing your barrel is to force the wood staves to absorb water. This will cause the wooden staves to swell or expand and ultimately tighten together, which closes the gaps between each of the staves, allowing the keg to hold liquid without leaking out.
To do this, you can soak the barrel in a tub of water, but, if your barrel is finished with a stain or varnish, then this can damage its appearance.
For a finished barrel or keg, place it in a sink or bathtub with the drain open. Then fill it with hot water from the tap. By having the keg in a sink or bathtub will allow any water leaking out of the barrel to go down the drain, which could damage the finished exterior if it were to sit in the water.
While the water runs from the keg, keep topping it off with more hot water. The reason we use hot water is because it tends to be absorbed by the wood faster which reduces the amount of time needed for this process. Keeping the keg topped up with water will also force the wood to absorb the water. If we allowed all of the water to just drain from the barrel, this will not force the wood to take on the water, and make this a very tedious project that would take much much longer.
How long does it take? This depends on how dry the wood has become. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than 24 hours for larger kegs. Smaller kegs, like the 2 or 4L size, have smaller staves and will generally take less time to cure than larger kegs. Be patient with the larger kegs! This is a proven technique that will efficiently tighten virtually any keg, so it will be worth your troubles!
Step 2: Testing the Oak Keg For Leakage
The second part of curing your wooden keg is to make sure that the staves have thrououghly expanded enough to hold your product. Try it out with water first so you don’t waste any of that sweet goodness you're so eager to age.
After completing step 1 and it appears that only minimal leaking is taking place, let the keg rest with the water inside of it overnight to make sure that it will hold your product without leaking out. Once that's complete, you are now ready to drain the keg and add your spirit, or if you plan age wine, you'll want to sterilize the keg next.
Don’t Skip Step 1!
It should be noted that barrels should not be stored full of water. The idea is that you want to keep the wood wet and the barrel tight so you don't have to repeat this process, but storing the barrel with water will result in mold issues, and that could make the whole barrel useless. One option is to add water to the barrel regularly and allowing it to sit overnight. This will keep the wood wet enough to have the staves remain tight, and reduce the time required to cure the barrel before use.
Sterilizing Your Oak Keg
There's a couple ways you can sterilize your barrel. Probably the most common method is by burning a sulfur strip in the barrel. This will create a sulfur dioxide byproduct which will kill bacteria, wild yeast, etc. Another option is to simply fill the barrel with very hot water (above 170 degrees Fahrenheit) and allowing it to sit for 30 minutes. The extremely hot water will sterilize the barrel without having to use chemicals or the sulfur strip.