Pictured are two beers bearing the badge of Upper Canada.

One is still “original” in the sense it is brewed by a successor of Upper Canada Brewing Company (UC), which started in 1985. After a middling run, in 1998 its assets were bought by Sleeman Brewery in Guelph, ON. Of the line of beers UC produced, only Upper Canada Lager and Upper Canada Dark Ale are still made. Somewhat unfortunately they are priced as budget craft beers, with a dozen fetching $18.00, a pretty good buy in this Province as the beers are excellent.

Not that many people buy them though judging by the few cases I see in Beer Stores in Toronto. I think many beer fans who would enjoy them are put off by the case format (minimum purchase 12), and, strange as it sounds, low price. You have to have confidence to pay low for something good and not everyone has that, I’ll say frankly.

The new Repatriation Lager is a re-brewing of Upper Canada Rebellion Lager. It was sometimes styled in its day malt liquor, probably for legal reasons as it was always a lager, except when a (separate) Rebellion Ale was issued c. 1997.

Henderson Brewing in Toronto did the remake by permission of Sleeman, a nice gesture by Sapporo of Japan which owns Sleeman now.

Rebellion became Repatriation, a double pun only Canadians will fully understand. I’d guess Sleeman wants to retain the name Rebellion, maybe for future use or disposition, or maybe there is some other issue for Henderson to use the name, I’m not sure. (Henderson has used “Upper Canada” on the label with no issue clearly from Sleeman).

The Repatriation is a partial success in my view as its colour seems somewhat darker than I recall, see also the original pictured below from the Ratebeer page on the original beer, here. (The reviews are interesting too. They describe the colour as gold, deep yellow, mustard yellow. One mentions orange highlights).

But the colour difference is neither here nor there really. Taste is the important thing and it is close to the original but needs to be more impactful in the palate. The yeast background is correct, and the slightly fruity note, but the taste is too restrained even by 1980s standards.

I think this is a great initiative and I’d encourage Henderson to brew it again but just bring the taste profile forward.

Before I get to the Dark Ale, I want to say that Upper Canada never really hit the mark for me. It’s not that its beers were early-generation and lacking by comparison to today’s craft range as such. It’s that they never were spot on and I think that played a role in the demise of the original concern.

The Dark Ale as made by Sleeman is much better than the Upper Canada original, plain fact IMO.

The original had a distinct, almost Belgian banana note (isomer?) that seemed unusual, not English, the ostensible inspiration for the beer. Perhaps the brewery was aiming for a Trappist-like taste, some Trappist beer has that profile.

Some people of course enjoyed UC Dark Ale and more power to them, but the way it is now, it is much better: the taste is malty, quite rich, a good emulation of an “English brown” of the post-WW II era. It reminds me of what Newcastle Brown Ale used to taste like and some other of the older-style English brown ales.

As craft beer is old enough to provide its own examples for emulation, myth stories, and more, hopefully one will see more recreations and salutes. But I’m being honest to say that in general, early Ontario craft brewing did not stand tall in the brewing leagues. Other areas well exceeded it, even taking account of the milder profile craft beer then had in comparison to today.

In contrast, the brewing scene today in this province is much more accomplished, in taste not just quantity.

Still, Rebellion was a good effort, one of the best of the UC range in fact, and I’d tweak Repatriation to get it exactly right.






Year Manhattan and Martinez Cocktails are First Cited

1878 and all that

Cocktails history is an occasional interest of mine. Stimulated by a discussion today with drinks historian David Wondrich on Twitter, I’ve looked into the year the Manhattan and Martinez cocktails first appear in print. Many consider the Martinez the ancestor of the Martini, or in effect the same thing, but it has a connection to the Manhattan too.

In terms of when a proper written recipe first appeared, sources on these cocktails seem to accord on 1884 via the book The Modern Bartenders’ Guide, or Fancy Drinks and how to mix Them by O.H. Byron, published that year by Excelsior Publishing House in New York. See e.g. this original edition, and page 21 where Byron states in lapidary fashion that the Martinez recipe is the same as his (two) detailed recipes for the Manhattan, but with gin used for the whiskey.

However, was Byron’s book published earlier? Consider (via HathiTrust) page 400 of Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, published in 1878. Jennie June was the nom de plume of Jane Cunningham Croly.

According to my searches, see e.g., the Catalogue Record in HathiTrust for this title, Croly/Jennie June’s American Cookery Book was first published in 1866. It appeared in numerous later editions or reprintings, including in 1878 (new edition, see preface). She published a number books dealing with female and “domestic” issues, and founded an influential womens’ club. She is remembered enough to merit the Wikipedia biography entry linked above.

Excelsior was her publisher, hence its ad in the closing pages for the (uncredited) The Modern Bartenders Guide. This Guide seems essentially the 1884 one as the drinks list in the Contents page is almost the same. “Manhattan Cocktail” duly appears in versions No. 1 and No. 2 and their actual recipes must have been the same as for the 1884 edition, ditto for the way to make the “Martinez Cocktail”.

For the Manhattan, the modern Difford’s Guide states that the first written recipe appears in O. H. Byron’s book published in 1884 and that a reference to the drink appears earlier in print, in September, 1882 in the Daily Morning Herald of Olean, NY. The latter mentions the key ingredients of a Manhattan but is not a recipe as such.

(There is other evidence suggesting an earlier origin for the drink but nothing in print to confirm it before 1882 as far as I know).

Yet, the Manhattan, in two versions, and Martinez, sans recipes but surely the same as in the 1884 book, appear ostensibly in 1878 in an ad in Jennie June’s cookery book published that year. No ad for The Modern Bartenders Guide appears in the original, 1866 edition of Jennie June’s book, or what appear to be reprintings in 1870 and 1874.

I’m wondering now if Jennie Jerome Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother and associated in lore with the creation of the Manhattan at the Manhattan Club around 1880, has been confounded with the Jennie of the cookbook mentioned. Or is that just a coincidence?

If I’ve gone wrong, happy to be put straight, but so far I don’t see where.

From Baltic Wood to Bourbon Wood: British Beer Evolves

Storing Beer in Non-Traditional, American Oak Becomes Fashionable

It turns out that at the late year of 2004, we can read of the wood cask history of English and other U.K. breweries. This time, it’s not in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing.

It’s not by one of the current beer or beer historical writers, not by a predecessor of the Brewers Association, not in the journal Brewery History. It’s not in the pages of a brewing technology text. It’s not from a publication of the well-known Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), although we’re getting warm.

It’s in an issue of the quarterly magazine of the fairly obscure Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood (SPBW). The SPBW is a U.K. social group founded in 1963 by enthusiasts of naturally-conditioned beer. Originally the group promoted interest in beer that literally poured from wood casks, but today supports traditional (real) ale even if dispensed from metal containers (the main form of container today).

You can read the objects of SPBW here and how the group distinguishes itself from CAMRA.

In 2004 Anthony Redman wrote up the history of oak barrel use by breweries for SPBW, and most interesting his account is. He also provides an interesting bridge to the present in that it appears he was (may still be) connected to Innis & Gunn, who had recently developed a new type of oak-aged beer in Scotland.

His article appears in the SPBW magazine in four parts, in issues 88, 89, 90, and 92. The first part explains how Innis & Gunn Scottish Ale, aged in oak barrels, came onto the market. It’s the familiar story that the beer was meant originally simply to season casks to hold a William Grant whisky, but with some twists and extra background. In a sense the story goes back to the 1970s and early research experience of Russell Sharp, founder of Caledonian Brewery who earlier had worked in distilling.

Dougal Sharp, a founder of Innis & Gunn and son of Russell, worked at “Cally’s” as a brewer and came up with the recipe for what is now Innis & Gunn Original.

The second part gives some general history on use of oak barrels to hold wine and beer. The third part is the heart of the discussion, with a detailed history of the use of Memel and other oak in U.K. brewing. Some interesting information appears I’ve not read elsewhere, including that Memel wood ceased to be definitively available to British coopers in 1934, on the Persian oak supply that saved British cask plant in the 1950s, and on how the troublesome American oak was dealt with finally by lining the barrels in different ways.

Redman writes that Memel came back to the market in the 1950s but was too expensive by then. (Other sources state quality issues arose as well, some of the wood still showed effects of war damage).

Redman’s series bears an appropriately Victorian title: Some Animadversions on Beer in Wooden Casks.

Here is the page from the SPBW’s website on which past editions of its magazine are archived in pdf. So you can pull any issue mentioned to find each or all parts of the article.

Redman gives as well the detailed recipe to season casks, of any provenance, he emphasizes, in the brewery. He takes care to explain this is different from seasoning the staves at the cooperage. It means using a strong salt and soda solution to clear out the woody, vegetal smell of untreated oak, and he says, if you use oak for casks you had better do this else the beer will taste awful.

What this shows us among other things is Innis & Gunn were well-aware of how American oak was viewed historically in the British brewing industry. They knew everything we do, and probably lots more. It’s not the case that they thought American oak was a wood typically used for beer casks in the past or was on a par with other woods previously used.

Yet, almost all wood used in any form by Innis & Gunn to my knowledge is of American white oak origin. All bourbon barrels and staves certainly would be, but most rum and whisky barrels too, as most other barrels used in the spirits and wine industries. There are some exceptions to be sure, e.g., for Cognac, some French wine, but American oak is the general type used for maturing most spirits and wine today.

Innis & Gunn clearly made the business decision that a taste formerly not felt suitable for the British market could find new favour. This was probably due to the fact that ale itself had become a smallish category in the beer market: lager was the main form of beer by the 2000s.

Also, American craft brewing had introduced a wide range of new flavours in beer. Goose Island and other U.S. brewers had shown by 2004 that beer from American white oak could sell and even have cachet.

It has long been reported that William Grant distillery workers liked the beer destined for the rubbish tip after doing its work to season whisky casks. Perhaps I&G went on nothing more than this and a hunch the vanillin-tasting beer would sell.

But one thing certain is, I&G clearly understood the history here. They knew they had something novel but turned the old learning on its head, to their advantage. In this sense they really are innovators, just as, say, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing was when he used the new Cascade hop as a top note in his beer in 1975.

Anthony Redman obviously was (or is) a well-trained and experienced brewing technologist. He sounds like a scientist or technical consultant, one quite familiar with the literature on beer cask history and then some. He writes well, too.

These are the concluding words to the third part of his article (issue 90), where he brings the historical picture up to date (2004):

… the drawback of the porosity of wooden casks was resulting in the growing use of steel and aluminium containers. Although more expensive they were particularly useful for carbonated beers, avoiding the loss of gas which was incurred in unlined wood, as well as being more convenient for bulk pasteurised beers. Most other aspects of the brewing process, fermenting vessels etc. had already ceased to use wood in favour of copper, steel or aluminium linings. They were more easily cleaned and required little maintenance. By 1980 wooden casks had all but disappeared. Today beer is delivered in wooden casks by a handful of brewers, notably, Wadworth, T. & R. Theakston and Sam Smith’s. All of them use unlined casks. All of them use oak from Germany and Poland. As was the case 100 years ago, American White Oak, with its tannins, remains unsuitable for unlined casks for English beers. All the Unions at Marston’s, again unlined, are of Polish Oak. A trial Union of American White Oak in 1992 found that it did have an effect on the beer and it was withdrawn.

His reference to American oak being unsuitable for English beers may be a subtle reference that a new, Scottish beer, Innis & Gunn Original, aged in a wood most British brewers rejected in earlier days, was about to shake up the beer market.

Obs. As documented in our recent posts, brewers in Dunfermline in Scotland had a history of using American oak to hold porter, if not ale. The folk memory is long, even unconsciously we think it can operate in mysterious ways. This may explain the long lapsus for another Scots brewer, Innis & Gunn, to use wood of the same source for its beer.



The Memory of Memel

Memel oak Casts a Long Shadow in the Britain of Macmillan, Fonteyn, Johnny Kidd

I stated earlier that 1939 was the endpoint of the British preoccupation with different timbers used for cask plant in breweries. Perhaps that’s not quite so, 20 years later W.P.K. Findlay, D.Sc., of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation, Nutfield (Surrey), wrote an article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing that reprised the old learning and issues. It was a late, last gasp though.

Findlay confirmed that non-European woods had long been used to build fermentation and mashing tuns, including a species of pine, Kauri, from New Zealand and (American) Douglas fir. It may be noted these are not oak, apparently used for similar purposes in distilleries but not breweries. I speculate that English breweries stayed away from American white oak due to the old prejudice against it, but perhaps there is another reason pine and fir were used when available (greater resistance to liquid rot?).

With regard to beer casks, Findlay liked wood vessels, in part because they were cheap and insulated the beer well from temperature changes. He calls it a “prejudice” in its favour.

He states the following:

There is general agreement among brewers and coopers that oak is really the only suitable timber for beer casks, so it is therefore a question of choosing the most suitable kind of oak for this purpose. At one time almost all the oak used for brewery casks was shipped from Memel and Dantzig in the form of well-prepared staves. Owing to political changes in the Baltic states, material from this source has not been available since the first world war. In recent years, oak from three sources has been used: European oak grown in Great Britain or on the Continent, American white oak, and Persian oak.

Provided that the home-grown oak is carefully selected and well seasoned it is every bit as good as the imported, but unfortunately some of the English staves are not sufficiently seasoned when they reach the cooperage. Most of the supplies of European oak come from Yugoslavia and Poland; French oak staves have not been well received.

There is some prejudice against American white oak which is said sometimes to impart a flavour to light ales, but this objection can be overcome by lining the cask. Personally I find it difficult to understand why this prejudice against American oak exists.

There are one or two remarks in the series of articles I mentioned between 1902 and 1939 to similar effect. I’d guess these men were not sensitive to the “American taste”, but that it existed (and exists) cannot be doubted. Findlay notes any objection to the taste can be overcome by lining the cask. Elsewhere in the article he states more casks are now lined for British brewing than not (1959).

This trend only continued into the period when metal replaced for practical purposes the remaining cask plant in British breweries.

Samuel Smith, among one or two other old regional breweries, still uses wood casks, I wonder if these are lined? Edd Mather, can you comment? If they are not lined, I wonder what wood source is used for these casks.

Findlay discusses various forms of lining for wood and even metal casks – early aluminum casks were still pitched for American brewers – and how to deal with laminated casks where the glue used won’t hurt the beer. All this fell away finally in favour of steel or aluminium casks that are easy to clean and won’t harbour microflora to injure the beer.

Early aluminium for casks had the tendency to pit, but that clearly has been overcome since the period he wrote.

His statement that Memel wood was not available since WW I is not quite right, I’m quite sure you could buy it into the 1920s and probably the 1930s. He may have meant WW II, which some other sources cite as the cut-off for supply of Memel and similar (East European) wood to British brewers.

His comment about French oak lacking from a QC standpoint for beer casks is not surprising to me, as much of the good French wine and brandy, Cognac certainly, have a definite scent imparted by that Limousin oak. It’s the perfumed note that distinguishes a good Cognac and many fine red wines. I’m not a fan of it either.

His references to U.K. oak still being available, both for distillery and brewery purposes, is interesting, as is the comment it was often too green by not being allowed to dry. Perhaps at the time English timbering was so attenuated that mechanical kilning did not exist by then (if it ever did). One can easily see that the U.K. climate will not encourage proper drying without the passage of many years, something difficult to manage when materials are short.

Interestingly, oak from Persia, secured under no simple set of circumstances and involving animal transport of long distances, was resorted to after 1945. The old British connections to that part of the world may explain it, but I think probably again the need to find an oak that was “ABA” – anything but American – may be the real answer.

Even at this late date Findlay’s own fidelity to Yankee wood is surprising, but as I’ve mentioned, a few British technologists always held that view, against the current to be sure. And speaking of currents, Findlay may have been motived more by the old adage, any port in a storm.

Anyway all was to be neither here nor there soon with the onset of affordable metal casks that could be reliably cleaned.

This is surely the last article on timber for casks and other purposes in the brewery in the journal mentioned.

But what do you think beer tastes like in a cask made the old way from Crown Memel oak? From staves fashioned to precise 19th-century specifications and dried as required by generations of British brewers. What do you think?

Wood of this sort has to be obtainable again, I know there are timber merchants in Lithuania who deal in the historic oak of the region. Order some seasoned staves, make a barrel, and let’s see, please, brewers. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

Goose Island should do it, it’s perfectly positioned to with its European connections and well-funded R&D program. You could have Goose Island Memel Wood Imperial Stout. Invite me to the launch, I might come.

German Beer Cask Wood in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Era

From the same consular reports publication on the American stave trade I’ve referred to earlier, the position in countries other than Britain can be gleaned, not least Germany.

About a dozen German cities are represented through the reports of American consuls there, in 1891 again. It’s interesting reading. In Munich, the consul got very little cooperation from his trade contacts. It seems Munich brewers and merchants kept things close to the vest.

Perhaps the illustrious Munich beer tradition (and it was, I’m not being tongue-in-cheek) was in no mood to enlighten an American on their practices.

Yet, in other German cities the situation was quite different, with consuls getting good cooperation.

I’ll summarize the picture by saying, in this period almost no U.S. stave wood was used for German beer casks (or for much else it seems). The wood used was mainly from Hungary, Galicia, Serbia, Russia, depending on the town in question and local practices.

Some German oak was used, e.g. from the Rhine but it was generally not considered top grade due to excess porosity and brittleness. It seems to have been reserved for family and farm trade. Perhaps some small breweries used it that had a quick turnover where leakage was not an issue.

Some consuls, encouraged in some cases by the local cooperages, saw good opportunities for American stave exports.

The shining exception to no Ami wood was in Frankfurt. A personage no less important than German-American Budweiser major domo Adolphus Busch convinced a factory to use American oak for barrels and it seems the wood was found most acceptable. The taste issue, often mentioned in the consular reports from the U.K., does not arise here.

This may be due to the very limited reach of the American timber industry in Germany for beer casks, or perhaps (more probably I think) because German casks were usually coated with pitch, which prevented a wood-derived taste, or undue taste, affecting the beer.

Below is the first page of the Frankfurt report, read the next two pages from the link given. Bear in mind this city is the exception. The message from the other cities viz. American wood is, we don’t use it.

The Russian section is quite short. The consul states basically that Russian oak, and this would take in the Memel type, or that quality, was viewed as the best in the world and there was no chance for American oak to compete.

British brewers, with the main exception of Irish-based Guinness, could only agree when it came to their cask inventory.




Use by Guinness of American Stave Barrels in Late 1800s

In my last post I included four consuls’ reports from 1891 summarizing local trade information on the source of staves used for barrels to hold different kinds of beer. For Cork, Ireland, the evidence showed clearly that porter brewers used American wood.

My post just before that one made it even more clear as the firm that gave the Cork consul this information advertised in an 1880s Cork exhibition catalogue that it used Orleans oak for porter and Memel wood for ale barrels.

American wood also ruled for porter in Dunfermline, Scotland, and, at least to a degree in Liverpool.

In contrast, the report for London made clear almost all staves for casks were from Memel or other European ports, and little American wood was used. This meant London porter production had to use traditional Memel or other suitable East European oak, if not still English materials for its oldest surviving vats and perhaps some casks.

What about Dublin? The Dublin consul’s full report makes clear that Guinness had to use almost exclusively American oak staves for its barrels, see here and the partial extract below. The consul offers an interesting explanation why American wood did not adversely affect porter while not being so benign in relation to ale.

The explanation is somewhat confused, as he relates the effect solely to colour, which is not the full story. As technical discussions later made clear, a taste was imparted by American oak felt unsuitable for ales, and indeed it seemed for most English porter. As so often, laymen ended by not explaining the technics right, and even people in the trade, who probably imparted the information Reid used, may not have understood the situation correctly.

My feeling is, Guinness made a cost calculation due to the cheaper net cost of American wood (factoring its matchless durability), and the rest can be laid to fictive or at best “heroic” explanations.

But on the point of what kind of wood was used, taken with the 1902 Journal of the Institute of Brewing article I’ve referenced, it’s pretty clear Guinness used barrels mostly coopered from American white oak around the turn of the century.

Other evidence that Guinness used such barrels is found in David Hughes’ 2006 “A Bottle of Guinness Please”, see here. True, Hughes referred to Baltic wood as well but it is obvious a huge producer as Guinness, taking all the evidence together, relied strongly on American oak stands c. 1900.

Certainly in 1930 Guinness used only American wood, as confirmed in this business report.

The Dublin consul was unusually prescient on the need to conserve the American white oak forests, as well.

“The” Wood for British Beer: an Anglo-Russian Pact

Anglo-Russian cooperation isn’t legion these days, but when it came to wood for use in breweries, these national territories were fast friends – if you viewed the borders rather … fluidly, that is.

Memel, now Klaipėda in Lithuania, was the classic supply area, noted for its straight, knot-free oak and benign effect on the aforesaid fluid.

As discussed in a half-dozen articles in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing between 1902 and 1939, British brewers had a general aversion to using North American oak for casks. It is possible there was some use of cypress, larch, or similar water-resistant wood for mashing and/or fermentation, an area not investigated as far as I know, but for casks, American oak was generally disliked.

Earlier I discussed an article to this effect in 1939, the endpoint of this arc, as after WW II Crown Memel oak was difficult to get. American wood was finally resorted to but usually lined by then, with plastic or similar. With the onset of metal for casks and kegs in the 1960s the issue became moot.

With re-introduction of unlined wood casks and tuns by craft brewers, American wood in brewery operations is now (relatively) widespread, without controversy as to the effects on palate.

This is a good example where ignorance is bliss, but as I said in my last post, it is always thus, in brewing or any other commercial activity. Tastes change and are relative anyway. British brewers didn’t like the tang imparted to beer by the tannic acid of American oak because they weren’t used to it. It was the same thing with their aversion to American-grown hops, today all the rage in Britain.

The Americans seemed not to have minded use of their own wood for casks and vats although most of their vessels were coated on the interior with a more or less aromatic pitch, so they handled the issue differently again (the whys and wherefores are still debated in their case).

Two exceptions, one quite important, were noted in my previous post for British practice. Irish porter was often stored in such casks, and there was similar use in some parts of the English west. But London porter and all U.K. ale of any kind including Irish ale before independence were stored only in Memel casks from Lithuania or similar wood from the Baltic or Russia.

Below, I reproduce four pages from American consuls’ reports in 1891 as published in No. 3128 of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set.  They pertain to Cork, Liverpool, and London. You may read further, here, for the position in Newcastle and other U.K. cities, but the picture is broadly consistent.

There are some twists, for example Dunfermline in Scotland used American staves for porter, see here. Indeed the small city of the Fife had a notable brewing history, seven breweries operated there when the consuls were writing, see e.g., this 2012 Scotsman article. Coal was a local industry and mining was thirsty work.

For imports to an actual port city (Dunfermline is near but not on the water) it is hard always to know if its brewers used the wood in porter. For example, the consul in Cork stated its coopers got most of their stave supply from Liverpool. Therefore, while Liverpool was a centre to import oak from the U.S., a lot of that wood was simply brokered over to Cork for its brewing industry.

The Cork report mentions the O’Neill firm of St. Mary’s Road that I discussed yesterday, and notes it had 25 coopers under employ. This was no artisan operation, its fashioning of American oak into barrels for Irish stout was a significant business.

But the odd similar practice across the Irish sea apart, British brewers avoided that wood for beer of any kind, and certainly for ales pale, mild, strong, the main form of British beer until the 1970s.

And even for porter, in London, where porter was invented, English wood was used originally, then Crown Memel or similar oak from East Europe, until British porter production ended in the 1940s. (This seems clear from reading many sources including those noted or referenced herein).

When Goose Island Brewery in Chicago introduced its bourbon barrel Imperial stout over 20 years ago, the taste almost certainly would have been rejected by London porter brewers. Yet it became highly influential. John Hall took a gander – didn’t he though -and it became a thing, for beer of all kinds finally.

While barrels of all kinds too ended being used, a practical sine qua non was their staves were American oak. The singular taste that oak imparts, noted by the consuls as unacceptable to British brewing apart the exceptions noted, became a signature of craft brewing.

If I was Michael Jackson, the late lamented beer writer, I might have written that the insouciance of Americans opens opportunities to them foreclosed to more doctrinaire societies. On the other hand, as he well understood, conservatism has its merits too. The survival of Pilsner Urquell in pretty much its original form is an example, as he often noted.

From a business standpoint, perhaps it doesn’t matter really. Given the relative nature of palate, perhaps it’s no less true for consumers.

Note re images. The first image above, a pre-WW I postcard and map detail,was sourced from this Lithuanian historical website, and the four after, from the HathiTrust source identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

The Wood of old America and Cork Porter

I look up at blue sky of perfect lost purity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me…

– Jack Kerouac, “October in the Railroad Earth” (late 1950s)

In 1883 an industrial exhibition was held in Cork, Ireland. It was a showcase for a country and region just starting to emerge from severe privation due to grain shortages, in short, the potato famine. The official catalogue may be viewed here.

Climate basics are such that blue sky probably graces Cork – Ireland in general – only rarely, but New Orleans is a different matter, as in the 1800s port scene above. But for Ireland in any case we should suspend disbelief. I’ll carry on.

Among the quotidian trades, crafts, and industries showcased in the 1883 catalogue, barrel-making was one. Page 57 is easy to skip over but the beery historical eye is immediately drawn to it, as Edward O’Neill was fabricating tierces and kilderkins from “Orleans oak” for porter, as you see above.

In contrast, his ale cooperage was made from “best Danzic”, i.e., Memel wood from the Baltic with Lithuania the traditional centre of the trade. That wood was prized by English, Scots, and Welsh brewers of all kinds, for ale or porter. They liked its neutral effect on the beer, soundness with some porosity to mature the beer, and ease of working due to straight timbers without knots.

As noted in this 1902 issue of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, American timber for casks was generally disdained by British brewers, except in Ireland.* The English brewers in particular didn’t like the “cocoanut” taste and smell  the American oak imparted to beer (any type). The Irish porter-drinkers were said however not to notice the effect, see p. 603.

The Irish brewers, who made mainly porter, likely were more impressed with the elastic tight grain of U.S. wood – durability at less cost – than the English brewers.

As Irish customers were happy to drink beer poured from American casks, the divide endured for all the time wood barrels were used in brewing, until about the 1950s.

Guinness in Dublin certainly used the American staves, and clearly the Cork brewers did too, including surely Beamish & Crawford.

Orleans oak, usually called New Orleans oak, was white oak from the large stands then available in Louisiana. The wood was very durable, see confirmation at p.56 of this 1894 business survey of New Orleans.

Cork as a brewing centre – stout is still made there – needed casks. O’Neill clearly supplied American oak casks to them, for porter. In contrast, for ale usage, as in Britain, Irish brewers did not use the vanilla-tasting Stateside wood. Only Dantzig, or certain other Continental wood was used.

So we have confirmation on the ground of what the 1902 journal stated. It shows too that much stout and porter today, aged in barrels that almost always were made of American oak origin, are in this regard rather traditional. I don’t think it matters if the cask held whisky before or not, another spirit, or wine, etc. The wood in all cases show a similar effect, a characteristic vanilla butterscotch.

I’ve had porter and stout from all kinds of wood vessels and no matter what the vessel held before the beer went in, the American oak taste is in the final result, and usually a touch of oxidative character. It’s due to the wood itself.

However, where non-porter (pale ale, old ale, mild ale, Scotch ale, etc.) is aged in American casks as often occurs today, the results rather diverge from brewing precedent, or at least British precedent.

But history often ends being incidental to the surges and rhythms of commercial needs. This is the way everywhere, for any business: trends develop, often unpredictable ones, products are touted, people put their money down, and are satisfied, even gladdened.

Historical guidance when all is said and done is a relative datum. Nonetheless, I think the porter and stout brewers of Britain knew their stuff. Porter does tastes better without that coconut/vanillin/oxidative twang, at least I think so.

In contrast, beer produced in Baltic or English oak has a much better taste. I know this as I’ve had beer, say, from Traquair House in Scotland that was processed before bottling in uncoated wood, for mashing certainly.

That wood could not have been American as the vessels were very old when I had the beers 20 and 30 years ago. There has been some expansion since, and new wood vessels have been built, of what source I do not know.

But I recall the beers well from a generation ago, especially the flagship, unflavoured ale, and it tasted clean and rich with perhaps a touch of tannic character. Current online reviews confirm my recollections, I don’t think the beers have changed much. In other words, no one compares the beers to the typical American wood barrel aged beer.

True, the Traquair beer wasn’t stored for weeks potentially in wood casks, but mashing alone had to impart some wood character. Putting it a different way, if you mashed in American wood uncoated I’m sure it would impart a taste to the beer. The regional breweries in Britain, pre-craft, that used wood casks, and some still do, probably used American wood due to its predominance for casks since WW II but those casks were almost always lined to prevent contact with the beer.

So really, it was craft beer that brought a form of beer-aging to Albion that diverged from the practice observed by generations of brewers except mainly the singular case for Irish stout.

But all things equal, I probably prefer beer processed only in metal – in that sense I am a modernist. It has the cleanest, purest taste, and allows the malt and hops to have their say without being impeded by factitious interference.

None of the purity is lost, it remains perfect.


* The 1902 article, entitled Timber Used in Making Brewers’ Casks, also specified that in the “west of England” some American oak was used except for “ale”, where the brewers were “careful” to use Memel oak. This means some porter and stout brewed in the west was packaged for draft in American oak casks, as in Ireland. The amount would have been relatively small as the porter industry was traditionally located in London.


“An Organized Disturbance…”

A Bunny Imperious

American Charles N. Miller’s 12-page tribute to Welsh rabbit was written in 1899. It is one of the great tributes to a food, although hardly known from our survey. We think it rivals Charles Lamb’s famous paean to roast pig.

A sample of Miller’s drollery:



Bass Extra Pale Ale is Miller’s “first, best, perfect corroborant”! Today we might say the best buddy, or “wingman” in U.K. parlance, for Welsh Rabbit.

Bass beer is still available. And Welsh rabbit, well, you don’t see it all that much. A renewal of both is in order.


Note re image: Image above is from the HathiTrust digital library, as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Is Herkimer on Your Gastronomic Map?

Sharp eyes may have noticed the name on the wheel of cheese pushed by a plump bunny in this image included in a number of our posts:

The drawing is the cover of the 1899 Welsh Rabbit at Hildreth’s by Charles N. Miller, who delivered a high panegyric on the cheesy subject.

That’s Herkimer. What’s Herkimer? The name of a famous cheese district in America in the second half of the 19th century. I had not heard of it and it forms part of the 1001 little-known but fascinating food sagas of culinary North America.

Herkimer is a county in central New York State, one of number that comprise the Mohawk Valley.

Every summer, Nan Ressue and others hold a New York cheese festival there, one we hope to attend this summer. Ressue has written excellent notes, with sources listed, on the history of Herkimer cheese fame. Start here to bone up.

The story ended with the approach of WW I, as milk was diverted from creameries to make condensed milk for the Allied forces. Even before that, cheese shipments had declined domestically. Wisconsin and Ohio had started to compete with Herkimer production, and Canada too via increased exports of cheddar to the U.S. Much of this was from Ontario, still indeed a cheddar stronghold.

New York exports, especially to Britain, had declined by 1900 since newly-introduced frozen meat from Argentina and the Antipodes was selling for the same price as the cheese, ousting part of the market.

Still, there has been a modest revival of the former staggering trade which once reached 30M lbs of cheese a year. A Herkimer Cheese company, founded in 1949 in Little Falls, was the first part of the revival. Since then numerous dairy farms and artisan dairies have emerged to produce again fine New York cheese.

A cheddar-type was the principal product of the original industry, both white and orange-coloured (with anatto). Clearly it was prized for Welsh Rabbit, the melted cheese specialty that came with the colonists to America from Britain.

Charles Miller’s book appeared just as tolling time for the Herkimer cheese business was nigh. But culinary and beverage associations and reputations long endure. Virginia Elliott’s 1930s recipe for Welsh Rabbit I recounted yesterday recommended “well-cured New York or Old English cheese”.

The New York reference was clearly to the kind of cheddar Herkimer County specialized in before WW 1. Perhaps a little of it was still around, or a similar cheese was, made elsewhere in the Empire State.

Well, Herkimer is back, and Beeretseq will try some in July, hopefully. More anon.