Session #138: the Good in Wood

Jack Perdue at the Deep Beer blog has proposed the topic of wood use in brewing, under the title “The Good in Wood”, for this month’s The Session.

He has suggested a number of avenues to explore and encouraged participants to develop their own. One suggestion is the historical use of wood in brewing, a particular interest of mine.

On my site, I must have a dozen posts exploring this topic in considerable detail including this post,“From Baltic Wood to Bourbon Wood”. It details obscure but significant and revealing history concerning Innis & Gunn’s adoption of barrel aging.

See also my “Memory of Memel” post linked at the end of the post mentioned.

My examination amply satisfied me that American oak, which is the predominant form of wood available for aging beer today, was generally not used in British and European brewing in the 1800s and part of the 1900s. The reason is, particular flavours it imparted to the beer were disliked.

There was a limited exception for porter and stout, mostly in Ireland, as Guinness and other porter-brewers there liked the sturdy quality of American wood and felt (evidently) the tastes imparted to the beer were not objectionable.

The general practice not to use American oak, often called Quebec or New Orleans oak c.1900, applied not just in British brewing but for lager and other brewing on the Continent.

In contrast, Americans would have used their own oak in the past, but the casks were sedulously lined, with brewers’ pitch or similar, to preclude the Chardonnay- or bourbon-like, coconut/vanillin tastes entering the beer. In my experience, those tastes are usually found in today’s barrel-aged beers, irrespective whether the barrel is new oak, toasted, charred, first-fill or other bourbon wood, rum, malt whisky, etc.

Hence, while many consider the use, say, of bourbon barrels in brewing (all made from Arkansas, Missouri, or other American oak) a reflection of old brewing tradition and artisan practices, the link is rather tenuous, imo. It doesn’t mean the taste results enjoyed by so many are improper, after all taste is relative, but I feel it is important to appreciate the history.

Really in many ways the widespread adoption of the American oak barrel for storing or conditioning beer, and ditto for mashing or fermentation, is a counterpart to the importance Cascade and other New World hops acquired after early craft brewers started using them in the 1970s. A template or new road was created, and the same thing is happening with wood vessel use in brewing.

Now, exceptions to a rule will always be found. It seems Belgium, with its eclectic brewing approach, took whatever casks or hogsheads it could get for West Flanders red ale and the lambic family, in particular.

Even for some old vessels some of this was American wood as such oak has been used in Spain, say, for sherry butts for a long time, and probably in some brandy production in Europe as well – but not for Cognac, or Armagnac.

But this is a limited or scattered exception, involving too beer with often assertive tastes of lactic or other acids and Brettanomyces…

When it comes to lager of any kind, pale ale, IPA, brown ale, strong ale, and these families generally, personally I do not like the tastes imparted by American wood, finding myself in tune with the old learning.

It extends for me to porter and stout even as I recognize the Irish brewers didn’t mind the American wood. In this respect I believe Whitbread and the other London porter-brewers who continued in their heyday to use Baltic Memel wood or other European oak to hold their porter, had the superior technique.

One other thing that concerns me about prolonged barrel aging – in any wood, for this purpose – is the risk of oxidation. I don’t think it helps any beer, frankly.

I emphasize these are personal views. I recognize many people enjoy the flavours I’m referring to. If there is a market for it, more powers to the brewers who will satisfy it.

1 thought on “Session #138: the Good in Wood”

  1. I think it’s implied above but to clarify if need be, oak staves shipped from Memel in what is now Lithuania, being typically from parts of Russia, Poland, or Germany, as well as English oak, were felt to be fairly neutral on the beer, hence no need to line or pitch them. English oak by the 19th-century though was hard to find in the quantities needed for staves, due to levelling the forests in previously centuries for building, ships, fuel. Memel, the best quality being “Crown Memel”, became the go to of British and other brewers in Europe, subject to a few exceptions as noted. See e.g. this source from an American trade diplomat c. 1930.


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