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.