The Memory of Memel

Memel oak and the Britain of Macmillan, Fonteyn, Johnny Kidd

I mentioned earlier that 1939 was the endpoint for the British preoccupation with different “timbers” used for beer barrels. Although 20 years later, W.P.K. Findlay, D.Sc. wrote an article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing which reprised the old learning. That was a last gasp, though.

Findlay confirmed that although Baltic Memel oak was the brewing standard, non-European wood had been used for fermenting and mash tuns, including a pine, Kauri, from New Zealand. American Douglas fir also had been used. These are not oak, and apparently found greater use in distilleries than breweries.

For beer casks, Findlay liked wood in general because it was cheap and insulated the beer well from temperature swings.

He stated:

There is general agreement among brewers and coopers that oak is really the only suitable timber for beer casks, so it is therefore a question of choosing the most suitable kind of oak for this purpose. At one time almost all the oak used for brewery casks was shipped from Memel and Dantzig in the form of well-prepared staves. Owing to political changes in the Baltic states, material from this source has not been available since the first world war. In recent years, oak from three sources has been used: European oak grown in Great Britain or on the Continent, American white oak, and Persian oak.

Provided that the home-grown oak is carefully selected and well seasoned it is every bit as good as the imported, but unfortunately some of the English staves are not sufficiently seasoned when they reach the cooperage. Most of the supplies of European oak come from Yugoslavia and Poland; French oak staves have not been well received.

There is some prejudice against American white oak which is said sometimes to impart a flavour to light ales, but this objection can be overcome by lining the cask. Personally I find it difficult to understand why this prejudice against American oak exists.

In the series of articles I mentioned earlier on wood types, between 1902 and 1939, a few similar comments are made to similar effect not objecting to the American “flavour”taste”, but that much prejudice existed on this account can’t be doubted. Findlay seemed satisfied with lining the cask to preclude the flavour entering the beer, and notes by the late 1950s the majority of wood casks in the UK were lined anyway. (This was to minimize the risk of infection, which existed regardless of wood origin).

Finally, metal casks replaced wood casks for all practical purposes in British breweries, so the old learning became moot. Today, use of wood barrels to hold beer has been revived by craft brewers. And a few old-established brewers never stopped using them anyway.

Findlay discusses various forms of lining for wood and even metal casks – early aluminum casks were still pitched for American brewers – and how to deal with laminated casks where the glue used won’t hurt the beer. All this fell away finally in favour of steel or aluminium casks that are easy to clean and won’t harbour microflora to injure the beer.

Early aluminium for casks had the tendency to pit, but that clearly has been overcome since the period he wrote.

His statement that Memel wood was not available since WW I is not quite right, I’m quite sure you could buy it into the 1920s and probably the 1930s. He may have meant WW II, which some other sources cite as the cut-off for supply of Memel and similar (East European) wood to British brewers.

His comment about French oak lacking from a QC standpoint for beer casks is not surprising to me, as much of the good French wine and brandy, Cognac certainly, have a definite scent imparted by that Limousin oak. It’s the perfumed note that distinguishes a good Cognac and many fine red wines. I’m not a fan of it either.

His references to U.K. oak still being available, both for distillery and brewery purposes, is interesting, as is the comment it was often too green by not being allowed to dry. Perhaps at the time English timbering was so attenuated that mechanical kilning did not exist by then (if it ever did). One can easily see that the U.K. climate will not encourage proper drying without the passage of many years, something difficult to manage when materials are short.

Interestingly, oak from Persia, secured under no simple set of circumstances and involving animal transport of long distances, was resorted to after 1945. The old British connections to that part of the world may explain it, but I think probably again the need to find an oak that was “ABA” – anything but American – may be the real answer.

Even at this late date Findlay’s own fidelity to Yankee wood is surprising, but as I’ve mentioned, a few British technologists always held that view, against the current to be sure. And speaking of currents, Findlay may have been motived more by the old adage, any port in a storm.

Anyway all was to be neither here nor there soon with the onset of affordable metal casks that could be reliably cleaned.

This is surely the last article on timber for casks and other purposes in the brewery in the journal mentioned.

But what do you think beer tastes like in a cask made the old way from Crown Memel oak? From staves fashioned to precise 19th-century specifications and dried as required by generations of British brewers. What do you think?

Wood of this sort has to be obtainable again, I know there are timber merchants in Lithuania who deal in the historic oak of the region. Order some seasoned staves, make a barrel, and let’s see, please, brewers. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

Goose Island should do it, it’s perfectly positioned to with its European connections and well-funded R&D program. You could have Goose Island Memel Wood Imperial Stout. Invite me to the launch, I might come.