The Brewery and the Boudoir
Memel oak is wood from forests of Russia and Poland that had ideal properties for British brewers, especially for “cask plant”, the barrels in which beer was shipped to public houses, clubs, and hotels.
Memel, the Baltic port from which the eponymous oak was sent to world markets, is now Klaipėda, in Lithuania. I’ve written seven or eight postings on this subject, this one brings many of the points together.
In brief, until World War I Memel oak had near-universal use in British ale brewing. In London this applied to porter as well. Guinness was one of the few breweries that adopted the tight-grained American oak, but most others used Memel for casks and other vessels, uncoated.
American brewers used barrels made from the native white oak but the interiors were invariably coated with brewers’ pitch, a subject I also covered earlier. It’s an interesting question what wood Canadian brewers used, I can’t recall seeing any references. I’d assume it was North American oak.
As a vestige of a once-standard industry practice, the historic Traquair brewery in Scotland still uses antique Memel vats to ferment its beer. See images here from the company’s website under “How the Beer is Brewed”.
In a blog posting at Pat’s Pints, the vats can be seen more clearly including their russet tinge, which also appears in some of the logs (freshly harvested) shown in my post linked above.
So important were the Memel stands that the Czars sought to bring them under their control, according to a 1936 story in the New York Post. The Post‘s report had nothing to do with beer as such. It had to do with something many would regard as incongruous or antithetical in a beer context, perfume. (I set aside the reveries of the beer connoisseur here).
A Miss Terry was employed by a perfume and apothecary company on Lexington Avenue. She devised a perfume for a Russian singer, Tamara. Her full name was Tamara Drasin Swann, a Russian-born singer who appeared on the New York stage in the 1930s. Some accounts have her origins as Ukrainian.
She often played an exotic or vamp of old Europe. She was killed in a plane crash near Lisbon in 1943 while on USO service. For more details see her Wikipedia entry, here.
The perfumer’s object was to personalize a scent that conjured associations with Tamara’s birth land. I know little about perfumes but do know that their complex formulas seek often to evoke the scents of forest, glade, grotto. To achieve this, oakmoss was used to lend the keynote effect.
The reporter noted: “Miss Terry uses it as being redolent of the Memel Oak for which Russia has been famed for centuries”.
In fact, oakmoss, which grows on oaks and shrubs, is a venerable ingredient in perfume-making. It is sourced indeed in Europe, not America from what I can tell, and currently at any rate the Balkans exports the crop to the perfumeries of the globe, as this online resource, Fragantica.com, states. Its French name is poudre de Chypre.
Some years ago, in its wisdom the European Commission limited the permissible quantity in perfume. The lichen can irritate the skin, it seems, but perfumers still use it, in a modified way.
In many countries the dark forest has an enduring cultural resonance, often with magical or mystical connotations. We can’t rule out certainly a romance/marketing factor in making a “Russian forests” perfume for an alluring Slavic songstress.
Still, truth can reside in interstices, in implications. The perfumer knew about the Memel forests, probably from her client. She drew on this to create an ideal scent for a Broadway femme fatale.
In this light, can we infer Memel oak added an ineffable quality to English beer? Certainly, no amount of caustics coursing through a new barrel would leach out all the taste, that is impossible. Some taste had to remain, at a subtle, appealing level, we infer.
A special quality is implied in numerous accounts of Memel oak usage by the breweries. The smell and taste were evidently mild, “neutral” William Lindsay called it in 1939, see my posting linked above. He meant this, of course, to contrast with the vanillin twang of American oak.
Perhaps the taste complemented English hops, which can be arbour-like and, in the current cant for British bitter, “twiggy”. It all connects in an odd kind of way, doesn’t it? To the Gillmanesque mind it does.
Traquair has persisted with its old Memel vats because it thinks it gives the beer something. The vats may impart a lightly earthy note – see the discussion in Pat’s Pints again. Other reviews of Traquair’s beers refer to a similar earthy or even oaky note but nothing approaching American wood, the John Phillips Souza of the oaken race.
Of all the brewing fads under the sun, I cannot recall any where someone obtained Memel oak from Klaipeda, made a cask, cleansed it the old way, and filled it with good British bitter.
Who will do this? A wood that inspired a perfume for a Russian diva was a stand-by in the hard, un-perfumed business of brewing beer.
From Courrèges to Courage. We need to see why.
N.B. It always amazes me how, contrary to intuition, many businesses in the news 80 or 100 years ago still exist. Miss Terry’s employer was Caswell-Massey, which still sells fragrances and soaps in New York. See details from its website. It remains American-owned and is one of the oldest businesses in the country. Surely it has a file, perhaps the colour of ochre and dusty, that lists the specs for a perfume that breathes the bowers and glades of the Czar’s forests.
Note re image: the image above, of Tamara in 1933, was sourced from this Pinterest page. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.