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.