The Memory of Memel

Memel oak Casts a Long Shadow in the Britain of Macmillan, Fonteyn, Johnny Kidd

I stated earlier that 1939 was the endpoint of the British preoccupation with different timbers used for cask plant in breweries. Perhaps that’s not quite so, 20 years later W.P.K. Findlay, D.Sc., of the Brewing Industry Research Foundation, Nutfield (Surrey), wrote an article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing that reprised the old learning and issues. It was a late, last gasp though.

Findlay confirmed that non-European woods had long been used to build fermentation and mashing tuns, including a species of pine, Kauri, from New Zealand and (American) Douglas fir. It may be noted these are not oak, apparently used for similar purposes in distilleries but not breweries. I speculate that English breweries stayed away from American white oak due to the old prejudice against it, but perhaps there is another reason pine and fir were used when available (greater resistance to liquid rot?).

With regard to beer casks, Findlay liked wood vessels, in part because they were cheap and insulated the beer well from temperature changes. He calls it a “prejudice” in its favour.

He states the following:

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.

There are one or two remarks in the series of articles I mentioned between 1902 and 1939 to similar effect. I’d guess these men were not sensitive to the “American taste”, but that it existed (and exists) cannot be doubted. Findlay notes any objection to the taste can be overcome by lining the cask. Elsewhere in the article he states more casks are now lined for British brewing than not (1959).

This trend only continued into the period when metal replaced for practical purposes the remaining cask plant in British breweries.

Samuel Smith, among one or two other old regional breweries, still uses wood casks, I wonder if these are lined? Edd Mather, can you comment? If they are not lined, I wonder what wood source is used for these casks.

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.