American Wood, Cork Porter




In 1883 an industrial exhibition was held in Cork, Ireland, a showcase for a country and region just starting to emerge from severe grain shortages and famine. Its official catalogue may be viewed, here.

Among the quotidian trades, crafts, and industries detailed in the catalogue, was barrel-making. Page 57 is easy to skip over but the beer historical eye is immediately drawn to it. Edward O’Neill was fabricating tierces and kilderkins from “Orleans oak” for porter, as seen above.

In contrast, his cooperage for ale was “best Danzic”, i.e., Memel oak from the Baltic region. That wood was prized by British brewers for ale or porter. They liked its neutral effect on the beer, the soundness of the oak with some porosity to mature the beer, and ease of working with few knots.

As noted in a 1902 issue of the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, American timber was generally disliked by British brewers, with the main exception in Ireland.* English brewers in particular didn’t like the “cocoanut” taste and smell that American oak imparted to beer (any type). Irish porter-drinkers were said, however, not to notice the effect, see p. 603.

Irish brewers, which made mainly porter then, likely were more impressed with the tight grain of U.S. wood – durability at less cost – than palate, for this purpose.

The divide endured until wood barrels exited from the brewing scene starting in the 1950s.

Guinness in Dublin certainly used American staves, and clearly Cork brewers did too, including surely Beamish & Crawford.

Orleans oak was  usually called New Orleans oak. It white oak  (Quercus alba) from large stands then available in Louisiana. The wood was very durable, see p.56 of an 1894 survey of New Orleans commerce.

Cork as a brewing centre – stout is still brewed there – needed casks. O’Neill clearly supplied this need for porter. But for ale, Irish brewers used Memel or other European wood regarded as similar. One has to think the wood affected the ale too noticeably for Memel to be dispensed with.

I’ve had porter and stout from all kinds of barrels (bourbon, scotch, rum, etc.) made from American oak. No matter the barrel the coconut/vanilla taste was in the beer, and often a touch of oxidative character.

History often ends as incidental to the surges and rhythms of business. That is the way everywhere, for any business. So today some craft beer is aged in uncoated American oak barrels, or vats made from American oak. Bourbon barrel Imperial stout is the best known example.

I think beer is better though when stored or otherwise processed in metal, or failing that European oak. Beers I’ve had with European oak influence include Traquair ale, especially decades ago when American oak would not have been used at the brewery (it still is not, AFAIK).

Probably metal containers are best, but it may be that Memel oak had a special effect on beer, so legion is the praise formerly accorded the wood in UK brewing circles.


* The 1902 article, entitled Timber Used in Making Brewers’ Casks, specified as well that in the “west of England” some American oak was used except for “ale”, where brewers were “careful” to use Memel. This shows some draft porter and stout in the west was packaged in American oak, as in Ireland. The amount would have been relatively small as the porter industry was traditionally located in London.