The Enchanted Forest

What Links Brewery and Boudoir

Memel oak is from forests in Russia and Poland. In past generations in the U.K. it was felt ideal for British brewers’ barrels, some wines as well.

Memel was the Baltic port from which the eponymous oak was shipped to world markets, now called Klaipėda, in Lithuania. I’ve written numerous postings on Memel wood in breweries. This one brings many of the points together.

In brief, until World War I, Memel wood, uncoated, had near-universal use for British ale brewing. In London, this applied to the dark-hued porter as well. Dublin-based Guinness, in contrast, adopted the tight-grained American oak as did brewers for porter in a few parts of the U.K.

American brewers used barrels made from the native white oak. The interiors were invariably coated with brewers’ pitch, to prevent contact with the beer. I’d assume Canadian brewers used such lined North American oak as well, but have not seen confirmation.

As a vestige of a once-standard practice the historic Traquair brewery in Scotland still uses venerable Memel vats to ferment its beer. See images in the company’s website under “How the Beer is Brewed”.

In a posting at the blog Pat’s Pints the vats can be seen more clearly including their natural russet tinge, which appears in freshly harvested logs as shown in my post linked above.

So important were the Memel stands that the Czars sought to bring them under their control, this according to a 1936 story in the New York Post. The Post stated this had to do, not with beer as such, but something seemingly incongruous in a beer context, perfume! (I set aside metaphor used by beer connoisseurs in full flight).

The  story recounts that a Lorna Terry worked for a perfume and apothecary company on Lexington Avenue. She devised a scent for a Russian singer, Tamara (pictured below). The latter’s full name was Tamara Drasin Swann. She was a Russian-born singer well-known on the New York stage in the 1930s. Some accounts have the origins as Ukrainian.

She often played a European exotic or vamp, a stock figure then in the American imagination. Drasin Swann was killed in a plane crash near Lisbon in 1943 while on tour with the USO. For more biographical detail see her Wikipedia entry, here.

Terry’s object was to devise a scent that conjured associations with Tamara’s birth place. I know little about perfumes but am aware their complex formulas often seek to evoke forest, glade, or grotto.

The reporter stated: “Miss Terry uses [oakmoss] as being redolent of the Memel Oak for which Russia has been famed for centuries”.

Oakmoss, which grows on oaks and shrubs, was used to generate or enhance this effect. It is a venerable ingredient in perfume-making, sourced indeed in Europe, not America from what I can tell. Currently, it appears the Balkans exports the crop to perfumeries around the globe. See this online resource, at The French name is poudre de Chypre.



Some years ago the European Commission decided to limit the permissible quantity of oakmoss in perfume. The lichen can irritate the skin, it seems, but some perfumers still use it in a modified way.

The dark forest has an enduring resonance in many cultures, often with magical or mystic connotations. I can’t rule out that a “Russian forests” perfume relied on such associations to appeal to the Slavic actress.

Still, the perfumer knew about Memel forests, quite possibly from her client. She drew on the mystique to create an ideal scent for her femme fatale client.

Turning back to beer, might we infer Memel oak added an ineffable quality to British beer? Even though wood casks were well cleansed before and between each use, some taste had to remain from the wood and must have communicated to the beer. Memel wood was known, in contrast to American oak, for its subtle effect on beer, but still there had to be some.

Maybe the taste complemented English hops, which can be arbour-like and, in the current jargon for British beer, “twiggy”. It all connects in an odd kind of way, doesn’t it? To our mind it does.

Traquair persists with the old Memel vats because it thinks it gives the beer something. Perhaps a lightly earthy note results – see the narrative in Pat’s Pints. Other reviews of Traquair’s beer refer to a similarly earthy or even oaky note, but nothing approaching the blare of American wood. Of course, the American tang is appreciated in bourbon whiskey, or Chardonnay wine, but those are different drinks.

Anyway, from Courrèges to Courage (Brewery), we might say.

Finally, it always amazes me, contrary to intuition, how many businesses mentioned in accounts 80 or 100 years old are still going strong today. Terry’s employer was Caswell-Massey. The company still exists, selling its fine fragrances and soaps in New York. See the details in its website.

The firm remains American-owned and is one of the oldest businesses in the United States. Maybe it still has a file deep in storage that lists the specs for a 1930s perfume, one that breathed the bowers and glades of a Czar’s forests.

Note re image: Image was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on Tamara Drasin Swann linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.