Mighty Oaks do Fall
In my previous post, I used a 1962 volume of The Brewing Trade Review to spotlight two historically influential breweries: E. Lacon in Great Yarmouth, noted for its audit ale, and D. Carnegie in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Carnegie was famed for its porter, still brewed in another Swedish location by an affiliate of the Danish Carlsberg.
The 1962 volume is largely monument to a past brewing era, although the Sixties is much closer in other respects. The Beatles were just getting going, and their influence rings ever strong. In contrast, most English beer styles and exemplar breweries in the book belong to history, with bitter ale the main exception.
In 1962, about the same 60 years had elapsed since issuance of the 1895 edition of E.R. Southby’s A Systematic Handbook of Practical Brewing. That influential text was the subject of extended commentary in the 1962 volume by brewing scientist J.L. Shimwell.
I profiled this important and idiosyncratic figure in this post. I had learned more about him when I did that work, which now comes in handy. The writer of the Southby series is termed “Gypsum”, a Victorian-sounding pseudonym for Shimwell’s contributions to the Review.
The series blends a clear explanation of Southby on important points, other historical knowledge Shimwell had, and informed, contemporary knowledge.
For vessels to mash malt, Southby felt English oak staves were best, with iron also suitable provided rust-free (today steel and aluminium do the job well). The reason was English wood would not rot under influence of the heated grain mix.
“Foreign oak”, seemingly including the Baltic oak cherished for beer casks, would not do for this purpose. For fermentation vessels, the situation was more nuanced, as you may read here (p. 782).
For beer casks, along with increasingly rare English oak, Memel and related oaks shipped from Baltic ports were indispensable. Shimwell writes at p. 784:
Southby lists some of the places from which foreign oak could be obtained: Stettin, Memmel, Dantzic, Odessa, Blumeza, and Riga – today they seem like names from another age.
By 1962, the subtext was, Baltic wood was unobtainable due to the effects of war and politics in East Europe. Hence, and this from my earlier research, other materials were employed for beer casks. Initially American white oak, although usually lined inside to keep out the “cocoanut” taste, as one c. 1900 journal put it.
Persian oak was tried, and many other sorts. Finally metal casks came in, gaining when Shimwell was writing. Guinness in Dublin was Exhibit A.
Metal casks have stayed, while so much else has changed in brewing and the industry. Yet, even this redoubt may crumble. Plastic materials have found a limited role. A Bloomberg report covered Carlsberg’s adoption of plastic kegs in 2018.
Nonetheless in 1962 there were plenty of wood casks in use in Britain’s beer industry. Some were old Memel still serviceable, some other woods used as substitute. An industry still existed to maintain these 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 landing point for vast shipments of staves from Memel, now Klaipeda, Lithuania, and other Baltic ports. Hence the timber merchants once legion in Liverpool.
With the postwar reduction of dock commerce the merchants closed or mostly. Certainly Vincent Murphy did, in 1982. It was sold to Timbmet of Stanford-in-Vale, Oxford, as 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 wood British brewers once rejected, in the great majority, for that use.*
Guinness in Dublin was the great exception. Even in the 19th century it liked seasoned American oak for casks. Porter brewers in another old oak – London – stayed with Baltic wood as long as they could.
Today, many people like the effect of unlined American oak on beer, an innovation introduced by craft brewers. It features usually for bourbon barrel Imperial Stout, and some other styles. I am less enamoured, the odd strong beer apart.
Whatever wood is used now in U.K. (and North American) breweries, it’s nothing to what it used to be, as lots of things in life.
*Hard pegs, or spiles, used to handle cask ale in the cellar, were often made of American oak.