Brewery and Boudoir
Perfume and beer are ostensibly unrelated subjects, yet connections exist as will be seen below. (True, a brain inflamed by a heady brew will lyricize its scent, but metaphor is at work here).
Memel oak is a form of “Quercus robur”, or common European oak. There were vast stands in Russia and Poland. In past generations in Britain it was considered “the” wood for brewers’ casks, among many other uses in industry.
Memel was the Prussian Baltic city now called Klaipėda, in Lithuania. It was an important port, among others, from which the eponymous oak was shipped. Regardless which port sent it, wood of the requisite quality was called Memel, or Crown Memel.
I’ve had numerous postings on Memel oak in British brewing. This one collected many of the points. In brief, until World War I Memel wood enjoyed near-universal use for British ale and porter barrels. Dublin-based Guinness in contrast adopted the tight-grained American white oak, “Quercus alba”, as did some minor porter brewers in England and Scotland.
These casks were not lined on the interior, or “coated”, in cooperage vocabulary. American brewers used barrels made of their own, aforesaid white oak. In this case, the interiors were coated with brewers’ pitch, to prevent contact with the beer. Canadian brewers probably did the same, but I have not seen confirmation.
As a vestige of Memel’s former importance in brewing, the historic Traquair brewery in Scotland still uses fermentation vats made of Memel oak. See the images in the company’s website under “How the Beer is Brewed”.
In a posting in the blog Pat’s Pints, Traquair’s vats may be seen more clearly, including their natural russet tinge. The colour appears in freshly harvested Memel logs, as shown in my earlier post mentioned.
So important was Memel wood that the Russian Czars sought to bring the forests under their control, according to a 1936 story in the New York Post. The Post was concerned, not with beer though, but my other subject here, perfume.
It recounted that a Lorna Terry worked for a perfume and apothecary firm on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. She devised a scent for a Russian singer, Tamara (pictured), whose full name was Tamara Drasin Swann. She was well-known on the New York stage in the 1930s. Some accounts have her origins as Ukrainian.
Tamara often played an exotic or vamp, a stock figure on the American stage at the time. She died in a plane crash near Lisbon in 1943 while on tour with the United Service Organization. For more biographical detail, see her Wikipedia entry, here.
Many who never stepped near a perfume workshop know the complex formulas used often evoke the damp forest, greeny glade, or grotto. Terry wanted moreover to devise a scent that conjured associations with Tamara’s birth place.
The reporter wrote: “Miss Terry uses [oakmoss] as being redolent of the Memel Oak for which Russia has been famed for centuries”. Oakmoss, a lichen which grows on oak trees, was used to generate or enhance this effect. It is a venerable ingredient in perfumes, sourced in eastern Europe, not America – or not very easily in America: its oakmoss simply lacks the right stuff.
A wartime (1942) article in New York’s Malone Evening Telegram reported:
Sixteen American oakmosses have been found to date, only one of which can be used, and it is not as satisfactory as the imported lichen. This one, Evernia vulpina, came from Oregon. The Givaudianian, a perfumery journal, says this lichen would be usable as a war substitute provided it can be found somewhere in great abundance.
A further idea of oakmoss in perfume can be gained from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which in 1959 profiled Italian fashion designer Simonetta Colonna di Cesaro Visconti (1922-2011). A successful businesswoman of noble birth, she had launched her perfume brand Incanto some years earlier.
Incanto means, enchanted. The story artfully described her blend:
The fragrance is complex in character, although essentially floral-woodsy in type. The Sicilian jasmine and a rare woody oil provide an exquisite topnote, rose and mignonette from Northern Italy contribute their floral importance, and for sophistication there are accents of tabac and oakmoss.
Interestingly in our context, Duchess Simonetta had Russian blood, through her mother. See further on Simonetta by Cara Austine in the website, Celebrity Dressmaker.
The dark forest has an enduring resonance in many cultures, often with magical or mystical connotations. Perfumers drew on this mystique to create intoxicating scents, as did Lorna Terry for her femme fatale client, as did Duchess Simonetta for her upscale trade.
The actual scent of oakmass in perfume evokes the forest, earth, bark, and leather: a concise explanation is offered in the Byrdie website, by Catherine Helbig.
Today, the Balkans in south-east Europe sends its oakmoss crop to perfumeries around the world. Balkan oak is “Quercus frainetto”, another oak species, also called Hungarian or Italian oak. While differing in some respects from Memel oak, Hungarian oak was also extensively used in breweries. See e.g. in an American consular report from 1887.
Some vats today made to age craft beer are fashioned from Italian oak, e.g. at the Scottish Brewdog’s Tower Hill location in London. (I was told this during a personal tour).
The image below, via Wikipedia, is the painting The Perfume Maker, by Rodolphe Ernst. It shows some of the ingredients and implements of old-time perfume-making.
Turning back to beer, might we infer Memel staves added an ineffable something to British beer? Even though all wood casks were well scoured before each use, the wood must have communicated some taste to the beer. Memel oak was known, by contrast with American oak, for its subtle effect on beer, that much is clear.
Maybe the taste complemented English hops, which can be arbour-like and, in current beer parlance, “twiggy”. It all connects in an odd kind of way, doesn’t it? To our mind it does.
Traquair in Scotland persisted with Memel vats because it had to give the beer something. Perhaps it was a lightly earthy note – see the discussion in Pat’s Pints. Other reviews of Traquair beer note something similar, but nothing approaching the vanillin blare of American oak.
Of course, the American tang is appreciated for bourbon whiskey, and Chardonnay wine, but these are different drinks. It must be said some craft beer is stored, today, in uncoated American oak. The taste familiar in whiskey and wine is appreciated by some in beer, too.
Perfume makers seem still to prefer oakmoss from Europe, so the equation for Europe as I’ve limned it is lacking Stateside, where modern craft brewing began.
It is pleasing to note Lorna Terry’s employer Caswell-Massey is still in business, selling fine fragrances and soaps from its New York base. All details in its website.
The firm remains American-owned, and is one of the oldest continuing businesses in the United States. Maybe a file deep in storage lists the formula for Tamara’s perfume, which conjured the bowers and glades of a Czar’s domains.
As for Incanto, a perfume of that name is marketed today, by Salvatore Ferragamo.
Note re images: the images above are identified with source linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.