Glass Carboys vs Oak Barrels

Glass Carboys vs Oak Barrels

The two most traditional vessels to age wine in at the amateur level is in either glass carboys or small oak barrels. Which is better? You’ll have to be the judge. Glass Carboys Glass carboys have been used as far back as the early 1800’s (per some historians), mainly to hold strong chemicals such as acids. Eventually these vessels were used in water coolers and by amateur wine makers. Their use in wine making stemmed from the need to have a small and affordable container to ferment and age wine in. Plastic carboys did not come onto the scene until very recently. Thus amateur wine makers had to choose between a glass carboy or an oak barrel. Here’s a cost breakdown between an oak barrel and a glass carboy. Beyond cost there are several advantages to using a glass carboy over a barrel. For starters the glass carboy can be used over and over again indefinitely. They don’t have a shelf life like a barrel does. Glass does not impart any flavors or chemicals into your wine. This is convenient because we can use the same container to make wines with or without oak in the same vessel. Oak chips are available in many forms from saw dust to cubes to spiral cut dowels. They can be purchased in all the same toasting levels that traditional barrels are made of. Another benefit to using glass is that it does not harbor micro-organisms. The smooth finish of glass provides no place for micro-organisms to hide from sanitizers and it’s easy to clean. So if a fermentation were to get spoiled by a stray micro-organism such as vinegar bacteria you merely have to clean out your carboy and you’re ready to go again. There are some drawbacks to the glass carboys though. First of all they’re made of glass. When they break they shatter and turn into a lethal pile of shrapnel. Second, they’re heavy which makes the first point that much more serious. In recent years plastic carboys have gained popularity because they’re lighter and don’t shatter. However, we’ll get into the glass vs. PET carboy debate at another time. Wine Making Barrels Oak barrels are the more traditional aging vessel for wine. By traditional I mean that they’ve been in use for a little over 2300 years. They came into common use around 350 BC by the Celts as a lightweight, portable container for shipping. Along the way winemakers determined that the oak imparted desirable flavors to the wine aged in it. Specifically if that oak had been subjected to fire on the inside face of the staves. This is called toasting. Prior to using barrels winemakers primarily used clay and concrete vessels. Obviously these were not not that portable. The use of oak as a building material likely stemmed from its structural integrity. While different woods may impart equally beneficial flavors they may not have been strong enough to be used as a barrel. Barrels are often referred to as the winemaker’s spice cabinet. Different types of oak offer different flavor profiles. The inside face of the oak...

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