Mighty Oaks do Fall
In my last post, with the benefit of a 1962 issue of The Brewing Trade Review I spotlighted two historically significant breweries, E. Lacon in Great Yarmouth, England, noted for its Audit Ale, and D. Carnegie in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The 1962 Trade Review stands as a monument to the brewing past even as the 1960s are close to us in other ways. The Beatles retain their importance, but it goes well beyond that. Fashion, architecture, and myriad cultural issues of our time show the connection.
In 1962, two generations had elapsed since the issuance of E.R. Southby’s 1895 A Systematic Handbook of Practical Brewing. That influential tome was the subject of an extended commentary in the 1962 Trade Review by brewing scientist J.L. Shimwell.
I profiled this important and idiosyncratic figure in these notes. I had learned more about him than I recorded when I did the work, which comes in handy now. The author of the Southby parts is termed “Gypsum”, a pseudonym Shimwell used for his contributions to the Review.
(Gypsum is an additive to some brewing water but its use as a nom de plume also evokes practice in 19th century UK trade journals).
Shimwell/Gypsum offer up a clear explanation of Southby on important points, add other historical knowledge, and blend in contemporary brewing knowledge.
For vessels in which to mash malt, Southby felt English oak staves were best, with iron also suitable provided rust-free (today steel and aluminum do the job well). The reason was English oak resisted rot despite the effects of the heated grain mix.
“Foreign oak”, seemingly including the Baltic oak cherished by British brewers for beer casks, would not do for this purpose. For more detail see here (p. 782).
But again for beer casks, along with increasingly rare English oak, Memel and related oakwoods shipped from Baltic ports were indispensable. Shimwell writes at p. 784:
Southby lists some of the places from which [this] foreign oak could be obtained: Stettin, Memmel, Dantzic, Odessa, Blumeza, and Riga – today they seem like names from another age.
Hard pegs, or spiles, used to handle cask ale in the cellar, were often made of American oak, but this had a tiny influence if any on the beer. Apart from that, American white oak was disliked for ale of any kind and by most English porter brewers.
Some porter brewers in outlying districts including Scotland did use American oak casks as did Guinness in Dublin, famously, but in general American oak and British beer were never a twain.
By 1962, the subtext was, prized Baltic wood was unobtainable due to the effects of war and politics in Central and East Europe. Hence (this from my earlier work in this area), other materials were employed for beer casks. Initially American white oak was used, although usually it was lined inside to keep out the “cocoanut” (i.e., vanillin) taste, as one c. 1900 journal put it.
Persian oak was tried, and many other sorts. Finally metal casks came in, and were steadily on the rise when Shimwell was writing. Guinness Brewery in Dublin was Exhibit A.
Metal casks have remained an industry staple while so much else has changed in brewing. Yet, even this redoubt may crumble. Plastic materials have already found a limited role. A Bloomberg report covered Carlsberg’s adoption of plastic kegs in 2018.
Certainly though in 1962 there were plenty of wood casks still in use in Britain’s beer industry. Some were old Memel wood still serviceable, some used other woods (American, Persian, etc.) as substitute. An industry still existed, the coopers a part of it, to maintain these casks and perhaps build a few new ones.
In the 1962 volume, Vincent Murphy & Co. of Liverpool placed an advert as follows:
Their phone number was Bootle 1055. Nothing sounds more stereotypically English, down to the likely pun of 1055 (beer historian in-joke). Bootle is a locality in Sefton, Merseyside. Liverpool and its great docks were a landing point for vast shipments of staves from Memel, now Klaipeda in Lithuania, and other Baltic ports. Hence the timber merchant trade once characteristic of Liverpool.
With the postwar slide in shipping commerce the associated merchants closed, or mostly. Certainly Vincent Murphy did, in 1982. They were sold to Timbmet of Stanford-in-Vale, Oxford, a report had it that year in the Oxford Mail.
Timbmet, for its part, still goes strong. Alas, wood casks in British breweries do not. There are still a few around, mostly made of the American oak British brewers once rejected, in the great majority.
Today, many people like the effect of unlined American oak on beer, an innovation introduced by craft brewers, particularly Innis & Gunn of Scotland. It features in bourbon barrel Imperial Stout as well, and some other styles. I am less enamoured of the taste than many, and hold with the old British learning.
Whatever kind of wood is used now by UK breweries, it’s nothing to what it used to be, like lots of things in life. A detail of the Victorian beer palate, the one Southby knew, therefore is mostly lost: the subtle effect of oak tannin in the beer. Oak moss-like, you might say, at least where the classic Memel oak was used.