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.