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.