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, a showcase for a country and region then just starting to emerge from severe privation due to grain shortages, in short the potato famine. The catalogue is here.

Blue skies probably grace Cork, and Ireland in general, only rarely, but are more frequent in New Orleans, as in the 1800s scene of its port above. But for Ireland in any case we’ll suspend disbelief, and carry on.

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

In contrast, his ale vessels were made from “best Danzic”, i.e., Memel wood from the Baltic states with Lithuania the traditional centre of the trade. That wood was prized by English, Scots, and Welsh brewers of all kinds (ale or porter, etc.) due to its relatively neutral impact on the beer.

As noted in this 1902 issue of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, American wood for casks was disdained then in the British brewing world, except in Ireland.* The non-Irish British brewers didn’t like the “cocoanut” taste and smell 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 durability of American wood as compared to the Baltic sort than other British brewers: more cost-conscious, in other words. Be that as it may, their customers were happy to drink beer poured from, well, stout American casks.

While Guinness comes to mind and must have used the American staves, clearly the Cork brewers did too including no doubt Beamish & Crawford.

Orleans oak, usually called New Orleans oak, was white oak from 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 brewed there – needed casks. O’Neill clearly supplied American oak casks to them provided used for porter. In contrast, his ale casks, as in England, Scotland, Wales, did not use the coconut, vanilla-tasting Stateside wood – Dantzig, or Baltic, wood only was used.

This is confirmation on the ground of what the 1902 journal stated. It shows too that much stout and porter today, aged in casks that almost always are of American oak origin, in this respect are rather traditional. By the way I don’t think it really matters if the cask held whisky before or not, or another spirit, or wine, etc.

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

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

But history often ends by being incidental to the surges and rhythm of daily commerce, doesn’t it? And this is the way everywhere, in any business, trends develop for whatever reason, products are touted, people put their money down and are satisfied.

Historical guidance is when all is said and done a relative datum. Nonetheless, I think the porter and stout brewers of the Union (and Wales) knew their stuff. Porter 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.

 

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