Russian Stout and 1975 Canada

First of its Kind

The Great Canadian Beer Book, edited by Gerald Donaldson and Gerald Lampert, was published in 1975 by McLelland and Stewart. It’s today part of Random House-Bertlesmann. Lampert is long-deceased, while Donaldson, still active, has carved a notable career in auto racing journalism and biography.

Despite its playful “scrapbook” design, popular in the 1970s, and insouciant tone the book is full of information: statistical, brewing-technical, historical, culinary, literary, and more. Levity is not absent, to be sure. The first chapter, “How’s This for Openers”, shows a bunch of bottle openers in a pile. It’s funny!

The book in part comprises short pieces by people of diverse backgrounds. There is Ted Dunal, who ran Henninger Brewery (Ontario) in the 1970s. There are poets, journalists, ad executives, novelists, and professors. Other chapters were prepared evidently by the editors.



The Great Canadian Beer Book may be Canada’s first consumer book on beer. For that reason alone it deserves to be remembered, but has value beyond that. Recently I discussed its essay by the late Marian Engel, the award-winning, Toronto-based novelist.

Two pages detail important history of Labatt Brewery. There are photos showing a “replica of the original Labatt brewhouse built in 1828 in London, Ontario”. A bearded, long-haired man is shown handling an oak barrel. For all the world it could be a scene at modern craft brewery.

Home Made, Home Brewed

There is a light-hearted but informative chapter on home brewing by Cromwell Kent, who writes:

… there is a barm in Toronto to soothe the weary soul. It is said to be descended from a famous Dublin brewery. Sometimes our barm dies on us, because we go a long time between brews and maybe we forget to feed it, and then we have to contact one of the custodians of this noble strain. They are all good people, deserving of their charge.  Mostly they are artists and belong to what is nowadays called the Old Left. From the pictures on a person’s wall, a shrewd judge can tell if he is likely to have the barm.

Cromwell Kent was the pseudonym of U.K.-born (in Chatham) Francis Sparshott (1926-2015), a long-time professor of philosophy and classics at  the University of Toronto. This obituary from the Toronto Star gives a good overview of his career, including his interest in beer.

I wonder what he thought of the craft beer revival, well underway at his passing. In his fashion, he contributed to it, unquestionably.

He had definite views, and was particular on aging of beer. He felt from 12-18 months made all the difference. After that, he said, “who knows?”. Quite so.

An American Adumbrates Beer Here

The book has things to say about beer styles even though written when mass market beer was at a height of influence.

The second chapter, “My Love Affair With Beer”, was authored by James Lincoln Collier (“JLC”). JLC is a distinguished author and professional musician, known for his children’s books and other works, some co-written with his brother, Christopher Collier.

JLC, as it happens, is American. Born and raised in New York City he still resides there, at 92. It may sound odd that the opening essay of Canada’s first beer book was written by an American. It’s not, really. The cultures of both places in consumer matters (and not just that) is close enough to permit cross-commentary.

JLC had drunk beer from “Dublin to Moscow, from Rome to Oslo”. Evidently he had a cosmopolitan, gastronomic background, perhaps one not as easily found in Canada then. His multi-page article, a blend of history, brewing technics and personal reminiscence, has a nugget on that classic of modern craft beer, Imperial Russian Stout.

Strong London Stout

The first “literary” treatment of Imperial stout is, I think, a 1960s magazine essay by the English wine writer Cyril Ray: “Cyril Ray Cracks a Bottle of 1948 Russian Stout”. American beer writer Michael Weiner reprinted it in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer. Later that year, the Briton Michael Jackson wrote his great éloge to Russian Imperial stout in The World Guide to Beer, the most important beer study ever written.

Russian stout had been noticed earlier by commentators, say, the Briton Michael Hardman in the early 1970s. And earlier, a series of 1920s advertisements conveyed an “exotic” character, I mean Barclay Perkins’ ads showing Russian wolfhounds led by a greatcoated figure.

But Jackson, with a spur from Ray whom he may have read, capped it all with his lines and evocative illustrations in that landmark book.

Collier’s comments predate Jackson by a good two years, and make their own statement viewed with the benefit of 40 years passed. He wrote of the style: “… heavy, bitter and musky, with overtones of funeral trombones and Wagnerian heroes at the edge of tragedy”. And, “… its tragic grandeur makes it a truly majestic drink”.

Now that’s modern beer writing. Maybe Jackson had read the lines before writing his summum on the style.

Reflect on this the next time you uncork your prize, and it is, bourbon barrel-aged Imperial stout.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Amazon listing linked in the text (see opening words). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





The American Roots of Labatt’s I.P.A. (Part II)

This description of George W. Smith’s career arc, from an 1890 survey of Upper Ohio Valley history, adds good detail to our understanding of Smith’s brewing history in both Wheeling, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, PA. This sketch omits reference to his Canadian activities, which included owning a brewery towards the end of the Civil War in Prescott, ON, but this aspect is covered by the modern account linked in my Part I.

To get some sense of the gravitas of Smith’s business in the two states and the importance of his American Bitter Ale, this advertisement in an 1857 trade directory tells much. See also pg. 66 in the same volume which sheds further light on Smith’s brewing, including an annual capacity of 14,000 barrels. Lager was on the rise in Pittsburgh, as pp. 66-67 show, but ale and porter brewing still enjoyed a large market.

William Fleming in Albany, NY, in almost exactly the same period, vaunted his Fleming’s Golden Ale against top British pale and Scotch ale imports. Smith similarly feared not to put up his product against Burton’s finest. Indeed, Smith had brewed in Albany, and New York City, in the 1820s; one wonders if the jaunty ads of both men were inspired by a kind of Hudson Valley brewing hubris.

In such light, we can understand why John K. Labatt, in London, Canada West (now Ontario), sent his bright third son, Labatt II, to Wheeling in 1859 to study the art of India Pale Ale.

In classic American fashion, a classic British-style IPA emerged under uniquely American conditions. It would soon establish a new, much longer-lived home in Canada via its influence on a famous beer of the pre-craft era: Labatt’s India Pale Ale.

The American Roots of Labatt’s I.P.A. (Part I)

My heart lies in old West Virginia…

(From The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbilly“, 1971)

In my article “Fleming’s Golden Ale” in the current issue of the journal Brewery History, I included among some 150 endnotes an 1861 advertisement* for Mendum’s Wine and Ale Vaults. Mendum’s, at Broadway and Cedar in the financial district of New York, was an ale specialty house that was also a high-end provisioner. In many ways Mendum’s, which deserves a blog study of its own, was the Eataly of its day.

The ad was set out in The Union Sketch Book of 1861, a guide to New York City, see here (via HathiTrust digital library).



Mendum’s, run by two English brothers who retired home finally with a small fortune, carried an impressive range of British (English, Scottish) and Irish ales and porters. It also offered numerous American ales – cream, golden, bitter, and more – evidently felt worthy to stand with famous imported marques.

Among the Stateside beers was Smith’s American Bitter Ale, rather a modern sounding name, indeed it was the “I.P.A.” of its day. The notice described the beer as hailing from Wheeling, Virginia. Wheeling from June 20, 1863 was thenceforth in West Virginia, as on that date West Virginia acquired statehood due to Civil War developments.

For Mendum’s to fetch beer – multiple brands – all the way from what was still a semi-frontier showed its high regard for Smith’s products.

Who was this Smith? He was English-born George Weatherall Smith (1799-1872), from Lincolnshire, who immigrated as a youth to Philadelphia with his father. He returned to Britain after his father died, and then came back, to New York City. After a trading career that ranged across America, he ended in the Pittsburgh brewing business, in 1829.

He was successful in ale-brewing there, and branched out (1850s) to Wheeling, VA with a similar business there. See this 1890 biographical account for further detail on his career. During the 1820s his career had included brewing in New York and Albany, so he had some experience in the field before taking up brewing in Pittsburgh.



He became well-known for his Kennett Ale, Stock Ale, Fresh Ale, and Porter, according to this biographical sketch by Christina Fisanick, a professor of English in Pennsylvania. Her sketch contains much else of interest on Smith including his connections to Canada.

Clearly he later produced other beers. His Champagne Ale, also carried by Mendum’s, may be an example, unless perhaps it was a re-naming of the Fresh Ale. It is unclear if Smith’s reputed I.P.A. was the same as his Stock Ale, as the latter term can denote numerous styles of beer.

An interesting point is how Smith, who had lived in America from the early 1820s, became an I.P.A. specialist. Pale bitter ale did not become a standard article of commerce in Britain, much less reputed (vs. in India), until some years later. Probably he had learned the art from workmen imported from Burton or elsewhere in the old country, or perhaps he used one of the numerous manuals in circulation by the 1850s that explained the brewing of I.P.A., the “tonic” now the toast of Empire.

So good was he at the art, that he attracted attention from the Labatt’s brewing family in London, Canada West, now Ontario. A number of Canadian beer histories, including Matthew Bellamy’s fine new book Brewed in the North: a History of Labatt’s, state that John Labatt II studied brewing in Wheeling with Smith. Smith had met the Labatts years earlier on one of his sorties to Canada.

The purpose of the stint, which lasted for much of the Civil War, was to master the brewing of India Pale Ale. Fisanick writes:

Labatt’s brewed its version of George Weatherall Smith’s IPA for 129 years. It was so successful in the North American marketplace that Labatt’s was able to forestall brewing lager until 1911, which was highly unusual. In 1992, Labatt ceased brewing IPA altogether in favor of investing in technology that would help them produce an ice beer. This new line of beer helped them remain competitive in the brewing industry, and as of 2018, Labatt is still going strong.

The Smith’s American Bitter Ale offered by Mendum’s to tony New York ale-fanciers was clearly the famous I.P.A. Not only that, it is likely John Labatt II had a hand in making that very beer. Hence, a long-disappeared, long-forgotten ale from West Virginia, not a place generally associated with fine ale-brewing, resonated down the ages, into the 1990s, via its DNA in Labatt’s I.P.A.

In a 1941 ad Labatt was still recalling the (overall) English origins of its IPA, and some earlier ads were even more specific about Labatt II in Virginia. Presumably by 1941 it still had a good character.

To my recollection, Labatt I.P.A. as offered from the 70s until the early 90s was much less interesting. By then it was a golden, fairly innocuous beer, not so different from Labatt’s standard lagers or Labatt’s blonde-coloured “50” ale. Had Labatt’s had more vision at the time, it might have renovated its I.P.A. and returned it to its 19th century glory. 1992 was just the time when modern I.P.A. started its ascent to star-status in the constellation that is modern craft brewing.

Fast-forward to 2019. Labatt’s now brews characterful pale ale – from recipes of modern craft brewers purchased by its foreign parent.

Note re images: the source of the first image above is identified and linked in the text. The second image was sourced from a 2013 issue of the Brampton Guardian, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

For Part II, see here.


*The description of Mendum’s was likely, or in my view, a paid advertisement albeit in the form of guide-book narrative.



British Beer in India and the Beetles

Tell Me Why

The origins and fate of British beer in the Raj, or former British India, are forever a key episode in the long and storied history of British beer.

In good part, this is due to the éclat there of India Pale Ale, aka bitter beer or export pale ale. Later a force in British domestic consumption, I.P.A. spread to the U.S., Canada, and far beyond until lager arrested its development.

Yet, I.P.A. proved its longevity and versatility by returning in the late 20th century to underpin modern craft brewing. This happened first in North America, then in the U.K. (setting aside British bitter, a derivative of IPA/pale ale), then almost everywhere. It was a repeating of the first success of the 19th century.

Bur what happened in India after the first blush faded? Most beer consumed in India today is mass market lager, in tune with most of the world although craft beer has made some inroads there.

A comprehensive history of British and European beers in India, starting with British India and the self-ruled States, remains to be written. A good end point for a Part I would be 1946, with Part II commencing in 1947 (the year of Independence) to the present. An analytical framework would examine why British beer imports declined in the later 1800s. After all, Britain still controlled India, with substantial influence in the Princely States, until 1947 and Partition.

I’ve discerned three important stages in the history, broadly similar to what happened in Australia, as I discussed earlier. First, there was the era of beer imports. Second, local breweries emerging to compete with imported ale and porter but still making, as Muree did until WW I at least, top-fermented beer in the British tradition. Third, lager-brewing overtakes almost everywhere and ale and porter wither.

Imported – especially German – lager was starting to make inroads in Indian markets prior to WW I, also in South China and Hong Kong. Yet, lager had no commanding position, certainly, up to 1914.

I will document all this in a Part II, but want now to focus on a potential issue with quality not hitherto explored, to my knowledge.

In general terms, there are many statements through 19th century literature that British beer often arrived damaged in some way, sour, or otherwise defective with much thrown in the harbours. U.K. beer writer Pete Brown in his 2011 Hops and Glory, documents some of the story.

Another quality aspect related to barrelled beer imports impacted by insect infestation during storage in “go-downs”, the simple shed-type structures that housed supplies.

In 1893 an entomologist, W. F. H. Blandford, with the Royal Indian Engineering College in Cooper’s Hill, Surrey, performed a comprehensive study of this problem. Circa 1890 seems late for such an exercise, but millions of gallons of British beer were still being imported.

Blandford conjures for me the stock image of the angular, monocled Victorian scientist peering into an iron microscope. Whether he looked anything like that is hard to say, but his study impresses by its dogged detail and mastery of Victorian entomology.* He identified X. Perforans, a boring insect either of India or “an acclimatized stranger”, as he put it, as doing the damage.

Hence, a European species might have infested the cask prior to shipment and gone unnoticed under a hoop or in a roughly finished part of the cask. If that was so, cask damage was only apparent after “unshipment”, i.e., in India, or earliest during the passage. Similar problems in Britain were unknown, in other words.

These are important takeaways from the study:

  • the insects proliferated near a leaky bung, boring in to lay eggs for reproduction
  • rarely did they bore all the way, but casks tended to fall apart from riddling with burrows
  • barrels were often stored 18-24 months in go-downs before consumption
  • Memel oak from the Baltic, especially of good thickness, resisted the infestation best
  • Whitbread brewery – known as I’ve shown earlier to use Memel oak exclusively – almost never had problems with its casks in India
  • Indian breweries, which by the 1890s were brewing double the quantity of imported beer, rarely experienced infestation problems
  • the fact that barrels were returned fairly rapidly to the Indian breweries, often in 6-8 weeks, seemed to minimize the problem
  • Indian breweries were able to send their beer direct to place of consumption (presumably due to proximity to customers) vs. storage at depots for distribution, so again less time for troubles to arise from damp or unclean store sheds
  • the above factors viz. Indian breweries applied despite that their casks used the same wood types as in Britain for cask plant. Indian sources of wood were tried but found not successful, or if suitable, the wood was too expensive or hard to find

18-24 months storage in India is a very long time considering that often, the same time was taken in U.K. to brew, store, and export the casks. One can only wonder what 6%-7% abv IPA was like three or four years after brewing and perhaps half that time in a very hot, damp climate.

Hence, to the problem of beer sour on arrival the problem of cask deterioration of famous-name beers long kept in insalubrious conditions must be added. This surely encouraged the decline of British beer importations, as Blandford implies in his study.

Hence when looking at the decline of British beer imports to India, the above quality factors are important, as well as the onset of local brewing and arrival of other foreign imports.

Nonetheless, by the onset of WW I a few million gallons of British beer – mostly ale and porter but probably too some lager from Scotland or Wales – were still being imported.**

Note re image: Image above, indicated as being in the public domain, was drawn from the pertinent article on the British Raj in Wikipedia, here. Any intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See discussion in the comments, where we thank Luigi Guarino for spotting an error in spelling of this term in a previous version hereof.

**[Note added March 20, 2022]. This post, and the Part II referred to therein, discuss a number of issues relevant to beer in India in the early 1900s.

William Lindsay Speaks

Show and Tell

In my post of March 13, 2018, CMOS [Crown Memel Oak Stave] Brewing, I drew attention to a 1939 brewing journal article by William Lindsay dealing with coopering Memel and other types of oak for British brewing needs.

Indeed, this is the same William Lindsay of the Edinburgh cooperage firm William Lindsay & Son, Ltd. that sponsored the film made at his Canonmills cooperage in 1936, as discussed in my last post.

The present post is simply to link expressly the two together – article and film. The two, in fact, bear the same title, “Cooperage – the Craft of Cask Making”. The article is based on a presentation Lindsay gave where he showed the film, and his comments illuminate certain sequences in the film.

Putting it a different way, I found the film mentioned in the article.

His explanation of the differences between hand and machine coopering may be noted in particular, as the machine process of course modified numerous aspects of the older form.

The other comment of note, I thought, is that lined American casks resorted to in Scotland to fill the Memel shortage in WW I had one advantage – the denser American wood stood up to the (largely Scottish) system of compressed air dispense.

The Memel casks were too porous under such conditions of dispense, in other words.

Every cloud has a silver lining, but in any case, a shower of beer, once you get it out.

Memel in a British Cooperage: a Pictorial Record

In my last post, I explored an English timber merchant’s call for British oak to become again a source of staves for beer casks and vats. The time-frame was the interwar 20s and 30s, not the best time perhaps for a revival given slumps and brewery overcapacity, but is there ever “a good time”?

In any case, it did not happen.

I call for it today, for British brewers, at least, to look to their own resources and history to offer “barrel-aged beer”. It could take in cask-conditioned beer, or beer conditioned at the brewery and stored in a wood barrel as some bourbon barrel stout is.

Let’s revive as well use of Memel oak for similar purposes. Memel is the famed oak shipped in former times from the Baltic port formerly called Memel, in Prussia. The locality is now Klaipèda, in Lithuania.

In expressing these thoughts I am well aware that the cooper’s craft has long been in decline in Britain. Stalwarts like Alastair Simms in England continue, almost alone it seems, a craft once practiced by thousands. My blogposts are mainly historical in nature, versus that is examining modern cooperage capabilities (which differ country to country) to produce a viable supply of British or Memel oak casks. Still, if a demand should arise for these items, surely enterprise can find a way, somewhere, to satisfy it.

Certainly when Memel still ruled, British oak, for its part, enjoyed no revival, not even after Memel exports ceased after WW II. Brewers turned to various expedients, as they had during WW I, including lined American oak, but finally steel and aluminum took over for barrel and and other brewery uses.

What did the famed Memel look like? An image of the beautiful wood in log form, that helped shape British beer, and its greatness, for centuries, appears on an information page for Ekenex JSC, a Lithuanian wood exporter, see here.

Note how straight are the logs, which permitted ease of cleaving for barrel staves. The wood was admired for its few knots and blemishes. While not as hard perhaps as American white oak, it was durable enough for the brewing industry. And it did not discolour or add a flavour deemed at the time objectionable to beer, in particular pale ale.

The Film

In 1936, a year that could still be viewed as heyday of Memel in British brewing, an extraordinary documentary film was made of the importation and working of Memel in Canonmills, a cooperage owned by William Lindsay & Son Ltd. Wm. Lindsay was an old Edinburgh concern with 19th century roots, that lasted until 1977.

The film is entitled “Cooperage: The Craft of Cask Making”, and was a private venture of a young Scot, John Gray. Wm. Lindsay provided some funding and used the film for promotional purposes. (Gray later worked with British documentary film legend John Grierson, a name well-known to Canadians. Grierson was instrumental in establishing, in or about 1939, our National Film Board).

The film is housed in the collections of the National Library of Scotland. Not previously circulated in beer historical circles to my knowledge, it is of great interest in documenting how Memel oak was sourced,  off-loaded, stored, and worked into barrels. The film, in black and white without sound, opens showing the clean-looking staves being unloaded and stored in huge piles to get ready for barrel-making.

Also shown is a map of Europe entitled, or in part, Forest Areas. The dark-shaded areas in eastern Europe are where Memel oak was still being sourced, quite large areas still for 1936 I think. A smaller area is shown further east, separate from the main patch

Note how the cloth-capped men, wearing no protective gear and without gloves, handled the staves to sort and stack them. Indeed the staves must have been beautifully finished to allow being handled by bare hands. Some machinery was used in processing but much of the work was still manual, as the film shows.

The staves appear to be the reputed 3″x 6″ planks of commerce that were then cleaved (never sawn) to form staves for barrels (54, 36, 18, etc. gal.).* A barrel-head reads “Barleymalt Wellsprings”. Initially I was not sure what this meant, thinking perhaps this particular cask was a dry cooperage product and hence not intended for beer or other “wet” use.

However, the names probably were fictitious, gotten up to assist the demonstration purposes of the film. The cask being made was likely in fact a beer cask.

Wm. Lindsay, as this archival sketch of its history shows, made barrels for brewing and distilling needs into the 1970s. Distilling prolonged the companyks life before the end, as metal had (mostly) taken over for brewing industry purposes.


*Lesser sizes were also in commerce. Width was always double the thickness. For a fuller discussion, see pp. 231 et seq. in the link given, a 1920s trade promotion study.






British Beer, British Oak – the Broken Twain

Opportunities Missed?

My occasional series on wood use for British and Irish beer casks may reach some 20 pieces before long. At that point, I’ll probably roll them into a long article for publication.

But for now, let’s explore themes that remained unexamined or latent to date. Again, for background, from my last post:

 … this [earlier] post brings many of the points together. In a nutshell, oak shipped from Memel [now Klaipèda, Lithuania] in the Baltic, a city formerly dominated by ethnic Germans but today under Lithuanian control, was used extensively by British coopers to meet brewers’ needs.

This of course is a broad overview, the trade was in fact complex. Other ports were used as well – Danzig, Riga, Odessa – and the wood derived from various prized centres in Lithuania, “Russian Poland”, parts of Germany and Austro-Hungary, and beyond. The term Baltic is a useful omnibus to contrast with other sources of wood available to British cooperages in the pre-metal days.

I’ve discussed at length American white oak. It wasn’t wanted for ale production in Britain, and had only a limited use in porter production outside London – where porter originated.* Yet it might be noted that today’s bourbon barrel stout, quite unconsciously, is historical in the sense that Guinness was a devoted user of American white oak barrels.

No lineage is necessary to justify “BBS” of course – the people’s vote is enough. But if lineage is wanted, it does exist in that sense. Certainly we enjoy a glass when well-made.

For much of the 20th century, as my earlier work explores, other woods were trialed, from Persia, from New Zealand, from all over the world. This 1922 article by H.C. Sweatman in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing attests to the broad variety of woods tested for cask purposes. It is a snapshot of their advantages and disadvantages and shows how British brewing remained wedded to Baltic oak, despite the odd dissenting note.

One brewer argued strongly for American wood, stating he had used it for thousands of barrels of beer without any difficulties. His view certainly has been vindicated by modern craft practice, but he was clearly in the minority, and we wonder if wartime shortages didn’t incline his market to more acceptance than in more normal times.

What now of English oak? It’s famous, isn’t it, the oak of old England? The U.K.’s Woodland Trust gives a good overview of Quercus Robur aka Pedunculus, a species grown from the Caucasus to the edges of Britain. But if we’ve learned nothing else, we know the characteristics can vary depending on soil and region.

American white oak with its hard grain and resistance to wear, or Quercus Alba, is a different species. It is grown in Quebec, Ontario and a swath of east and central America down to Texas.

Of course, there is no oak left to speak of in Britain, it was all cut down for ships, furniture, and buildings, the process that led to its revered status in British history and social lore. Your local if you live in Britain may not be called “The Royal Oak” but chances are there’s one within hailing distance.

So British oak wasn’t considered much for casks and vats prior to the time metal took over.

Yes? Well, not exactly.

There is no question that for hundreds of years wood was short in Britain for naval construction and other purposes: the history was well-limned by a Canadian forestry professor, J.V. Thirgood, in a paper of ca. 1970 you may read here. But he also notes that even in 1914 – so before the war made extraordinary demands on domestic wood supplies – thousands of acres of prime oak in Britain were “ready for the axe”.

Indeed, the march of the 19th century meant demand for wood had fallen sharply across a whole series of industries. Ship builders took up iron and later steel to build hulls. Coal and coke replaced charcoal and wood used as fuels. Commercial structures increasingly relied on steel from the early 20th century and for bridges and roads.

Even today, oak is the second most common tree in Britain. There is lots of it. While in 1900 a low point of some five percent of national territory was forested, 20th-century reform brought back large stands. The process began during WW I when the Acland Committee was established to study supplies of British wood and how to secure them for the future. A Forestry Commission established in 1919 continues this good work.

For the wood uses that remained in U.K. industry by WW I – beer casks and vats a prime example, Baltic’s better workmanship and lower price had pushed the English article to the edges of the market.

But in 1920 the American trade journal The Barrel and Box reprinted an article by a Briton, Robert Steele, on the advantages of English oak for brewers. It was the transcript of an address he made to the Federated Home-grown Timber Dealers Association. Steele, probably a member of the Federation, promoted with enthusiasm English oak for brewers’ needs.

In an environment (1920) where Baltic was almost unobtainable and American wood found wanting, Steele stated blankly there should be no trouble supplying “quite large quantities” of English oak staves for barrels. This was in the aftermath, too, of the heavy depletions of WW I. See the article here, from HathiTrust digital library. An extract follows:

He makes clear the source of the wood envisaged: copses. A copse or coppice is a small stand of wood where the trees have space to grow straight and tall. He implies that a cottage industry to supply first rate cask plant might be developed with the cooperation of the British brewers.

Difficulties forecast such as a tendency to warping, and rough finishing, were all typed as “superficial” by this specialist. And while Baltic wood had been increasingly used through the 1800s as wood of choice for British brewing, ancestrally English oak was used, as Steele explained. He went so far as to state British oak assisted the taste of British beer, whereas for other woods, it was a question of the type least damaging to palate (Baltic having been the main choice, by then).

The tenor of Steele’s remarks is that Baltic wood would hopefully return to the stave market but that British wood could supply a significant, ongoing part of brewers’ cask needs going forward. In the result, enough Memel in inventory and some continued shipments up to 1939 ensured generalized use of this wood to that year, but Memel became completely unavailable after the war.

Was Steele right about the possibility of large-scale recourse to British oak stocks?  A 1925 American trade study of the British lumber market assigned relative unimportance to the native (home-grown) lumber component. See in this work from pg. 16 and his other references to British wood and their dealers.

Yet the author, Arthur Boadle, also noted that large plantings were made by the Forestry Commission albeit not of immediate use. He also implies what Steele stated about British oak merchants needing to up their game for the degree of finish required by British brewers.

The sources suggest to me that a concerted, cooperative effort could have been made by brewers, cooperages, and lumber merchants – possibly with government aid – to ensure a satisfactory, long-term supply of British oak for beer casks.

Yet, as I’ve discussed earlier, a “woe is us” attitude continued to mark British brewing circles until well after WW II. Fretful brewers used American casks and tried to line or coat them (an extra expense, as noted by Steele); they tried Persian oak; they tried everything of a foreign nature until the advent of metal made the problem moot.**

It seems Britain’s forestry, cooperage, and brewing interests simply didn’t rise to the challenge. They left the field to other comers – a pattern seen in other British industries, including (arguably) hop cultivation. Cost and taxation pressures on brewers in the interwar 20s and 30s – a time of increasing consolidation and overcapacity in the industry – perhaps made such planning unrealistic, factoring too the inchoate consumer culture of the day. Or can we say simply there was a lack of vision?

We are left with the striking statement of Steele that British oak made for the best-tasting beer of all! I use the exclamation mark having warmed to my subject like Steele did, who twice used the same symbol following words in upper case. His presumed British reserve did not preclude a display of emotion for his belief in English oak.

Does British oak add a je ne sais quoi to beer, at least to beer made from British barley and hops? Who is trying today to tell us? The same applies, within its (generous) limits, to the famed Baltic wood, as I’ve discussed earlier.

Today, more than double the land is forested than in 1900; it is currently greater than 10%, see this online discussion. Numerous dealers in British oak exist, offering stocks from woodlands that are carefully managed to ensure replenishment. Numerous dealers provide wood from Baltic sources, as I’ve discussed earlier.

Yet to my knowledge, almost all barrel-aged craft beer uses barrels made from American oak staves. That covers certainly bourbon casks, but also most rum and whisky casks as well. Some European wood of various origins probably ends up storing or conditioning beer to varying degrees, including in some old regional English breweries. But most beer that ends at the bar as “BBS” and other wood barrel beer is likely from (unlined) American oak.***


*See e.g. p. 692 in this 1906 brewing journal article. The writer Haldane, long involved with the trade, clearly favoured American or “Quebec” casks for porter brewed anywhere, but stated London brewers and exporters of porter did not use them despite their cost advantage. I suspect the old-line London brewers did not agree with Haldane that porter was unaffected by the “American” flavour. The Irish porter brewers he cited kind of confirm that as they are stated to have liked the effect given their stout by American oak; Guinness was probably the main advocate here. In further support for insignificant, contemporary use of American oak in London brewing, see also the American Consul’s report for London in Special Consular Reports, 1891-1892, here. Finally, this history of Whitbread brewery, the iconic London porter brewer, states baldly it only used Memel wood for casks (p. 27).

**This 1930s American trade publication states that the U.K.’s domestic production of staves, vs. barrels by brewers (i.e., with staves brought from outside), was “negligible”. Regarding the later onset of steel and aluminum casks, cask-conditioned ale in British oak might have been promoted as a specialty to recall early times, as an element of terroir to add to those provided by use of British barley and hops.

*** The foeders, or wooden conditioning tanks, at the Tower Hill BrewDog in London are fashioned from Italian oak, based on information received during my visit last year. It seems this arose from contacts within BrewDog to wine-makers in Italy. Also, some English oak is probably still in use as fermenting vats or casks in some U.K. breweries, but very little, to my knowledge again.




A Briton Talks to Americans About Beer Barrels

Compare and Contrast

I thought I hadn’t much more to say about wood use in British and Irish brewing up to the period metal casks and kegs largely replaced the old “wood plant”.

But more information keeps arising, so to the baker’s dozen of posts I have on the topic, I’ll add a new one. For those not familiar, this post brings many of the points together. In a nutshell, oak shipped from Memel in the Baltic, a city formerly dominated by ethnic Germans but today under Lithuanian control, was used extensively use by British coopers to meet brewers’ needs.

The oak sometimes came from other areas of eastern Europe (all as discussed in my earlier work), parts of Russia were favoured for example. It was prized for its workability, staunchness, and its relatively neutral effect on the beer even when used uncoated, the modus operandi of most U.K. and Irish brewers then. A major exception was that Guinness in Dublin favoured American white oak, as did Cork porter brewers for their casks.

There was some intermittent use of American oak in Scotland and England but London brewers, even of porter, generally used only Memel wood, sometimes called Crown Memel. It had great application in other industries as well such as building and ship-building.

In 1914, a fateful year as WW I ended the dominance of Memel oak in British coopering, a Briton sent a series of “letters” to an American trade publication. There were three parts: the first two dealt with wines and spirits, the last with beer. The last two are on pp. 45 and 48 of the 1914-1915 National Coopers Journal. This one, on p. 48, is the beer letter.

The author, not revealed in the decorous old manner, identifies himself as having “control” of a large “yard”, so he ran a sizeable coopering business in England and hence his information is of utmost authenticity, as the tone alone conveys. Other reports I’ve discussed, coming from trade officials, brewers, and brewing technologists are most helpful as well but there is no substitute for information from the source.

Of the many points made, he confirms American white oak had no writ in London brewing. Given his audience, he doesn’t linger on the reasons, but his readers would have known: the brewers didn’t like the taste the oak imparted to their beer. The vanillin or coconut taste (“chardonnay”) prized in craft brewing today, met an opposite reaction then, even in North America where barrels generally were lined in some fashion to prevent contact with beer.

He does state, as do other sources, that even European oak needed to be treated to serve as barrel wood, and that each brewer had his own way of doing this. Nonetheless his notes reflect the clear line most British brewers drew between North American and the best European wood in this regard.

One of the most interesting parts concerns Scotland. He states that the onset there of compressed air dispense vs. hand pumping from the cellar necessitated a change in how the barrels were constructed, due to different pressures in the casks and the effects on the durability and size of the cask.

The degree of detail, viz. say size of stave, thickness, endurance, is daunting, even in this short letter. The author constantly insists on the need for great skill on the part of workmen in the modern industry, due to the degree of specialization that had emerged. Whereas in a former time, he states coopering for brewers was relatively laissez-faire. Casks were not as stout in construction, barrels were used time and again (probably affecting quality of the beer although he doesn’t say this), and brewers had no organized system of projecting needs for casks.

With the arrival of industrial-scale brewing, this changed and a more methodical approach was applied to the ordering and replacement of barrels. The coopering industry aligned itself to the brewing season (commencing October) when vast numbers of casks were needed by brewers. There emerged the huge piles of casks – literally – to supply brewers’ needs, and this alone worked a change in coopering methods, as stockpiling cask inventory in the warm season tended to dry them out and alter the casks’ shape.

He gives an interesting reason for the October brewing tradition. Nothing to do with the cooler weather, but simply that the barley harvest and malting had occurred just before, so the main materials were ready to hand. It would be similar for hops although this is not stated. This always seemed to me the most logical reason, and the practice was followed later simply from tradition, i.e., even after barley and hop importation became more significant.

One thing that strikes in general from the piece is the unceasing pace of technological change, even in this industry which sounds age-old and long-established in its ways by then. The same dynamic would finally end the reign of wood for most brewing uses. Craft brewing has reversed this partially, but only to a limited extent. It’s not just, too, that mechanical work substituted for manpower, as he explains that the work was still largely manual, but in the very way the casks were made.

Finally, he is very clear on the main type of barrel used in British export brewing: 54-gallon hogsheads. The trade, as he notes, had contracted significantly by the time of writing.










Crofts v. Taylor, 1887

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble….
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.
(from Macbeth)


Mixing of beer by publicans and other retailers has been a no-no for centuries in Britain and probably elsewhere. Yet, as late as 1887, they were still arguing the legal fine points, as this case, Crofts v. Taylor, shows, a decision of the English Queen’s Bench.

Here’s what happened. A public house in Brick Lane, London was shown to have mixed two beers. One from Barclay’s was – my calculation from gravity numbers in the case – 5.7% abv, the other, a “small beer” from a dealer, only 2.4% abv.*

The savvy publican mixed them in such a way to produce a blend of 4.6% abv, whose taste as well would be drier than the Barclay’s beer, 1010.4 FG vs. 1013 FG. It’s not clear how or if he had labeled or retailed the mixture, i.e., I think perhaps the revenue agent found the blend in the cellar before any tapping.

The mixing statute prohibited adulterating or diluting “beer” or adding anything to it except finings. The key issue was, did Crofts dilute beer by mixing a weaker beer with a stronger? The magistrate held yes; the appeal judges agreed, although not without some difficulty in the case of one judge.

He worried a bit over the habit to order “half and half” in the pub, and noted as did the other judge that the required revenue had been paid, so was it clear Crofts had really diluted “beer”? If he had added water, that would be different, but as each component in the mix was “beer” and only that, arguably nothing was being adulterated.

In the result though, these doubts were resolved in favour of upholding the trial decision. Both appeal judges considered that not just revenue collection was at play here, but also the need not to humbug the customer if I can put it that way.

I must say had I heard the case, I might have had trouble to convict, as proof in such matters must be beyond a reasonable doubt and I am not sure the statute, as drafted in that particular case, went quite so far as it might have to discharge that burden.

There is always I think a policy factor that plays into court decisions of this type, and the court didn’t want the pubs to mix and match the beers in bulk as commercially supplied, end of the story.

And so the court decided against Crofts. He traded at 40 Brick Lane. Although I couldn’t quite reconcile the civic numbers on the fascias, I think it is this building at the corner (possibly rebuilt), now a hair salon.

What do you think though, was Crofts hard done by?

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the clipart site, here, which has authorized use for the purposes hereof.


*Rather late I think to be selling small beer in London, but there we have it, plus useful, court-approved numbers for its alcohol content then.



Stitzel-Weller’s Distilling and Barrel Entry Proofs in 1954 (Part II)

More mid-1950s Columns by J.P. Van Winkle, Sr.

At the end of this post are links to further Old Fitzgerald column-ads I found recently in digitized newspapers on the Fulton History site. They were authored by J.P. Van Winkle, Sr., later known as Pappy, the long-time and long-lived President of Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the famed D.S.P. 16.

Six further columns of Pappy were reprinted in But Always Fine Bourbon: Pappy Van Winkle and the Story of Old Fitzgerald, by Sally Van Winkle Campbell, published in 1999. As stated in a note in my Part I, this book is a must read for its warm tone, the extensive information conveyed, and handsome illustrations.

Yet more columns by Pappy exist, some were reproduced on bourbon discussion forums years ago.

Of all those I have seen, none mentions wheat in the (single) bourbon mash bill of D.S.P. 16. Obviously wheat was an important part of the D.S.P. 16 taste, and it remains so for the current Van Winkle and W.L. Weller bourbons. (I have omitted discussion in these posts of the current Old Fitzgerald, including the Larceny brand, produced by Heaven Hill Distillery but may discuss that later).

This 1970 Old Fitzgerald advertisement mentions the “whisper of wheat”. Perhaps 1970 is the first year wheat is mentioned in company advertising, I am not sure. But in the Pappy era, his columns and other company ads did not mention wheat, to my knowledge.

Pappy’s columns mention many aspects of bourbon production at D.S.P. 16 that he felt were important to quality. These ranged from daily ventilation of warehouses, to sour mashing, to prolonged open small tub mashing and fermentation, to controlling proof in various stages of operation, and more. My own feeling is that Pappy, as a good marketer, emphasized production aspects that contributed to the final result but in many cases weren’t unique to D.S.P. 16, while probably omitting a key if not the most important aspect – the wheat element in the mash.

Wheat lends a certain softness to bourbon, especially when well-aged, and this surely was a key part of the D.S.P. 16 Old Fitzgerald and Weller palates, not just the wheat but the exact proportions of corn, wheat, and barley malt used. Indeed the 1970 ad above states that the wheat contributes the “mellow, nut-sweet” taste of Old Fitzgerald, versus that is “the rye commonly used in other bourbons”.

In terms now of aging, while Pappy vaunted his four to eight year old bourbon, Old Fitzgerald, and Old Weller, were sometimes released at older ages. There was a Very Old Fitzgerald and Very Very Old Fitzgerald, as well as a 10 or 12 year Old Weller. Not a great deal of it was available, but there was some and ages ranged from 10-15 years old. Obviously this appealed to those who liked a well-matured taste.

In my view, the current Van Winkle range of 10-23 year-old bourbon is a true heir to that tradition. I stated in my previous post what my favourite D.S.P. 16 bourbon was – Old Fitzgerald Prime, 86 proof. My favourite Van Winkle product is the 12-year old Lot B. There are superlative bottles among the full range, that’s the beauty of great whiskey, each bottle no matter the fine points of “vintage” or make-up tends to differ a bit, like a fine wine or beer, or for each annual release that is true I think.

In the current W.L. Weller line, some bottlings of the 107 proof Antique are particularly good, even reminiscent to my mind of Old Fitzgerald Prime ca. 1980. I have not had the chance to try the new W.L. Weller Full Proof, bottled at 114 proof and perhaps most importantly, not chill-filtered. This is yet a further variable to ponder when considering the palate of (most) modern bourbon versus bourbons from the 1950s and 60s.

Here now are the J.P. Van Winkle, Sr./Pappy columns from the mid-1950s I found in the Fulton History site. The first three are linked in my earlier post, but I mention them here for completeness. All are from 1954, in New York State newspapers, except the last which is from 1957. Of these columns, all were new to me except the last one.

What Size Bourbon Fits Your Taste

A Whisky Fact Few Men Know

Tale of the Calico Shirt

What Goes on in a Whisky Barrel

Can’t Let That Old Mule Stop!

What is Your “Whiskey I.Q.”?

How To Look a Sausage in the Eye

Lincoln’s Tale of the Greedy Farmer