“The” Wood for British Beer: an Anglo-Russian Pact

Anglo-Russian cooperation isn’t legion these days, but when it came to wood for use in breweries, these national territories were fast friends – if you viewed the borders rather … fluidly, that is.

Memel, now Klaipėda in Lithuania, was the classic supply area, noted for its straight, knot-free oak and benign effect on the aforesaid fluid.

As discussed in a half-dozen articles in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing between 1902 and 1939, British brewers had a general aversion to using North American oak for casks. It is possible there was some use of cypress, larch, or similar water-resistant wood for mashing and/or fermentation, an area not investigated as far as I know, but for casks, American oak was generally disliked.

Earlier I discussed an article to this effect in 1939, the endpoint of this arc, as after WW II Crown Memel oak was difficult to get. American wood was finally resorted to but usually lined by then, with plastic or similar. With the onset of metal for casks and kegs in the 1960s the issue became moot.

With re-introduction of unlined wood casks and tuns by craft brewers, American wood in brewery operations is now (relatively) widespread, without controversy as to the effects on palate.

This is a good example where ignorance is bliss, but as I said in my last post, it is always thus, in brewing or any other commercial activity. Tastes change and are relative anyway. British brewers didn’t like the tang imparted to beer by the tannic acid of American oak because they weren’t used to it. It was the same thing with their aversion to American-grown hops, today all the rage in Britain.

The Americans seemed not to have minded use of their own wood for casks and vats although most of their vessels were coated on the interior with a more or less aromatic pitch, so they handled the issue differently again (the whys and wherefores are still debated in their case).

Two exceptions, one quite important, were noted in my previous post for British practice. Irish porter was often stored in such casks, and there was similar use in some parts of the English west. But London porter and all U.K. ale of any kind including Irish ale before independence were stored only in Memel casks from Lithuania or similar wood from the Baltic or Russia.

Below, I reproduce four pages from American consuls’ reports in 1891 as published in No. 3128 of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set.  They pertain to Cork, Liverpool, and London. You may read further, here, for the position in Newcastle and other U.K. cities, but the picture is broadly consistent.

There are some twists, for example Dunfermline in Scotland used American staves for porter, see here. Indeed the small city of the Fife had a notable brewing history, seven breweries operated there when the consuls were writing, see e.g., this 2012 Scotsman article. Coal was a local industry and mining was thirsty work.

For imports to an actual port city (Dunfermline is near but not on the water) it is hard always to know if its brewers used the wood in porter. For example, the consul in Cork stated its coopers got most of their stave supply from Liverpool. Therefore, while Liverpool was a centre to import oak from the U.S., a lot of that wood was simply brokered over to Cork for its brewing industry.

The Cork report mentions the O’Neill firm of St. Mary’s Road that I discussed yesterday, and notes it had 25 coopers under employ. This was no artisan operation, its fashioning of American oak into barrels for Irish stout was a significant business.

But the odd similar practice across the Irish sea apart, British brewers avoided that wood for beer of any kind, and certainly for ales pale, mild, strong, the main form of British beer until the 1970s.

And even for porter, in London, where porter was invented, English wood was used originally, then Crown Memel or similar oak from East Europe, until British porter production ended in the 1940s. (This seems clear from reading many sources including those noted or referenced herein).

When Goose Island Brewery in Chicago introduced its bourbon barrel Imperial stout over 20 years ago, the taste almost certainly would have been rejected by London porter brewers. Yet it became highly influential. John Hall took a gander – didn’t he though -and it became a thing, for beer of all kinds finally.

While barrels of all kinds too ended being used, a practical sine qua non was their staves were American oak. The singular taste that oak imparts, noted by the consuls as unacceptable to British brewing apart the exceptions noted, became a signature of craft brewing.

If I was Michael Jackson, the late lamented beer writer, I might have written that the insouciance of Americans opens opportunities to them foreclosed to more doctrinaire societies. On the other hand, as he well understood, conservatism has its merits too. The survival of Pilsner Urquell in pretty much its original form is an example, as he often noted.

From a business standpoint, perhaps it doesn’t matter really. Given the relative nature of palate, perhaps it’s no less true for consumers.

Note re images. The first image above, a pre-WW I postcard and map detail,was sourced from this Lithuanian historical website, and the four after, from the HathiTrust source identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.