Monday, 20 May 2013

Casks in WW II

In the days when barrels were still made of wood, a supply of oak for building and maintaining them was essential.

English oak was in short supply and since the 19th century most of the wood used in making casks had been imported:

"While the question of new casks and a supply of timber for repairs may not be a very difficult problem at the moment it is likely to assume large proportions if the trade remains normal and is not subjected to much restriction. The timber found to be most suitable for brewing industry comes from Russia and Poland, being shipped from the Baltic ports, but this source was cut off as soon as war broke out and brewers will be obliged to look elsewhere for their supplies. English oak has proved to be eminently suitable and is considered to be even superior to Russian oak, but unfortunately the available supplies are far too small to satisfy the demand.

During the last war supplies came from the United States and Canada, but although this oak proved quite suitable for cask making trouble was experienced when it was put into use. The principal objection was the rather unpleasant flavour it imparted to the beer, which the usual methods employed in the cooperage for treating now casks before they are put into use, failed to eliminate."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 46, Issue 4, August 1940, page 277.

This is another piece of evidence that suggests British casks were still unlined, unlike casks on the Continent, as beer came into direct contact with the wood. From evidence such as this, I've come to the conclusion that British casks were never regularly lined.

English oak was also too expensive:

"He [Mr. L. C. Thompson] had had a few excellent casks made recently of English oak, but the cost was about double the present cost of Memel."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 46, Issue 4, August 1940, page 279.

What was it that caused American oak to taint beer? I'll leave that to Prof Groom:

"Prof. Groom found that the tainting of beer was not due to fungi or bacteria acting in the wood or gaining access to the beer through the wood, but was caused by the entry into the beer of some natural constituent extracted from the wood. The conclusions drawn from the examination of a number of samples was that wood may be unsatisfactory because it is an inappropriate species, was felled at the wrong season, or that it consisted of heart wood that was too young.

. . .

The best quality of American white oak was found to give the most satisfactory results, and while very little difficulty appears to have been experienced where the casks were used for quick trade, the flavour invariably made its appearance if the beer remained in the casks for more than 10 days. These researches must have drawn attention to the variability of American oak for cask-making, and it is probable that future supplies may show an improvement in consequence." Journal of the Institute of Brewing Volume 46, Issue 4, August 1940, pages 277 - 278.
So it was the wood itself, rather than anything nasty lurking in it. If beer would pick up a taint from the best American oak in as little as ten days, how on earth could the cask have had any internal lining? The life of British brewers would have been much simpler had they lined their casks. Then they could have used any old oak, as long as it was strong enough.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, first, thanks for mentioning the availability of the brewer's journals on the Wiley website, it's a very useful resource. I've perused now quite a few numbers from 1890-1925, focusing initially on bottling of beer and sources of timber.

With regard to American oak, in about half a dozen articles leading up to the 1930's, there seems a near-unanimous view that American oak gave a taste and smell to English beer that was unacceptable to the trade. One early article states that it had a "cocoanut" taste. One can see exactly what was meant: this taste is easily recognized in American Chardonnay wine and bourbon whiskey.

The great exception since the 1800's, as you know, was Irish stout. One writer said the American oak taste became part of the palate that Irish drinkers accepted. In another article, a writer said the Irish breweries used the wood because it needed less "repairs" than other wood, being strong and elastic (all observers seem agreed on this except for wood that was deficient to begin with, e.g., sappy because cut at the wrong time, knotty, or otherwise inherently defective).

Another great exception was WW I. They couldn't get Memel and North Russian wood so they used American wood to make casks, they used what they could get. Sometimes American wood in this period, but also after the war, was lined, to hide the taste. So were "stinkers". A 1920's article by Dyche, owner of a cooperage with 25 years in the trade, makes it clear that lined casks (using either enamel, pitch or lacquer of some kind) were in use in British brewing but irregularly. E.g., southern breweries didn't like them and London appeared to use very little in particular. But they were in use by numerous breweries in the Midlands, North and especially in Scotland. I can't link the Dyche article from 1925 because I'm having trouble learning how to copy paste links from a new Apple computer I'm using (I'm a first-time Apple user), but it's easily found once again by the Wiley search system.

One thing that always strikes me about English brewing in its heyday is the great variety of practice. In the timber articles, you get some brewers or coopers saying English oak is best. Others say Memel or other Baltic is best. Yet others say American oak is fine, they never notice any off-taste with it. Some say lining never works. Some brewers say they've used lined casks for years, even pitched ones, with excellent results. It really did vary, just as the taste of English beer did then.


Gary Gillman said...;jsessionid=8C37DB6D9DFE3C8EF53712089D40CB1C.d04t03?v=1&t=hgxpogke&s=c6edc23bb401c80e10f01e25e0dfa3551d7e5413

Ron, I believe I've got it right now for the link to the R.B. Dyche article on lining casks, it looks to be from 1922.


Jeff Renner said...

A friend recently alerted me to this wonderful 1949 British Pathé newsreel about barrel making.

The staves are all shaped by hand tools and by eye, and the narrator claims that they hold not a gill more or less than the stated capacity.

It also shows a quirky initiation rite for a cooper finishing his five year apprenticeship. I caught that he was an "ex-sapper," a reminder of how recent the war was.

Jeff Renner said...

Regarding the comparative cost of American oak and British or European oak, an English (homebrewing) friend who lived here in Michigan during the mid-nineties found upon his return that it was a good deal cheaper to buy oak plank flooring (~1000 sq. ft.) for his house in Essex from a Michigan lumber yard, even with the cost of crating and shipping it to the UK. I don't know if there was any duty on it.

Edd Draper said...

It is strange though that we haven't heard any mention of oakiness in IPA's. One would think they would be oaked to hell after the 3-6 month voyage to India. I accept, however, that there is apparently no evidence of coating the barrels. Does that time frame match up with the kind of aging time that a lot of domestic beers received in the 19th Century as well? Because if so then that flavour would have been familiar to drinkers and not worth a special mention. But wouldn't that also imply a huge flavour difference between quickly-bottled beers and oak-aged ones? I haven't heard anything said about that either...

Gary Gillman said...

Jeff, in one of the "timber" articles from before WW I, the writer dryly notes that American stave suppliers (late 1800's) undertook to "educate" English and Scottish cooperage, particularly in the manner of supplying dressed as opposed to raw staves, which revolutionized the cooperage business. This English observer wasn't being sarcastic, he was being genuinely admiring how far ahead the Americans were to supply wood in a more useful and economical form. It was only the white oak taste that prevented wide use except again for stout and porter production. He noted English porter breweries also used the American wood. (He or another writer noted that sometimes the casks were painted to distinguish ale from porter casks, red for porter, white for ale). But the message was, the American wood indeed was cheaper than the Baltic wood, came better processed for its purpose, and needed less repair to last longer. English oak was very expensive and tended to knottyness.

I wonder what happened after WW II until the 70's when wooden casks started to fall away. These casks must (or one would think) have been made mostly of American wood. So why didn't circa-1970 English bitter taste like Chardonnay, huh? Or did it?


Gary Gillman said...

Ed, Ron has pointed out previously that English ale brewers generally did not want an oaky taste in their beer. And the Memel and best wood available did not in fact impart much flavour, that is one of the reasons it was prized. I'd think some oaky flavour might have carried into vatted ales but perhaps not as much as one would think.



Barm said...

We’d have to check where the wood was coming from in the 1960s and 70s. Just because the Cold War was still on doesn't mean there were no imports of anything from the Soviet bloc.

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, but would there still have been the need to import wood for barrels in the 1970's? Hadn't most large breweries given up on making new wooden barrels by then?

Gary Gillman said...

Well, even the 50's and 60's then: what were the sources for new casks? I seem to recall discussion here that wartime damage to the Russian and Lithuanian forests and other changes meant the wood from there was not suitable or used post-war. Perhaps the brewers' journals of the era shed light.