Sunday, 5 December 2010

Memel oak vs. American oak

Like zooming in on a fractal picture, I keep finding ever more levels of detail. This is about the wood used to contract casks.

Pale Ale casks were usually made from Memel oak. (Memel used to be part of East Prussia, but is now in Lithuania.):

"Crown Memel timber grown in and around Memel, shipped at that port, has been handed down from age to age, in the brewing world, as the oak from which casks for pale ale should be made. In the trade we have Quebec or American oak, and Memel or Baltic oak. Let me deal with the Quebec or American class first."
"Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 12", 1906, page 689.

For some purposed, American oak was considered more suitable:

"American staves, while they will not do for pale ale casks, are universally used by Irish porter brewers, and by the leading firms in the porter trade only American staves are used. 'Tis said that the tannin in the American staves lends to the Dublin porter a flavour that nothing else will. Be that as it may, American staves possess a tannin which makes them in every sense adapted for porter; yet, that very tannin debars their use for pale ale. Many brewers, particularly so country brewers, know this to their loss. One of the largest firms in the trade, a firm whom you all know, recently experimented with Memel or pale ale casks for stout, and that on a very elaborate scale; some thousands of casks were made from Memel staves, put into the trade, and examined periodically and systematically. The objects it was desired to ascertain were :— First, how Memel compared with American white oak as regards durability; second, whether the Memel heads of casks would be freer of shivers than American oak heads; third, whether the porter was affected in flavour. The initial cost, of course, was known to be much greater in Memel than American casks.

From the results it was incontestably shown that Memel oak casks were much more liable to injury than American oak. The heads shivered much more, and both sides and heads were frequently cracked across with any rough usage, such as is often unfortunately administered to casks in Ireland. The cost of repairs, consequently, was greatly in excess of the cost of repairing American oak casks.

Finally, no difference whatever could be discovered in the flavour of the contents of the cask between Memel and American oak. This latter was one of the most important things they wished to discover, and if it had been established that porter stored sweeter in Memel than in American oak, the firm to which I refer would have at once adopted Memel, more particularly in their firkin trade, as for family trade purposes this size of cask is largely used, and accordingly the porter is stored longer than in hogsheads and barrels. As, however, no difference could be found, and as all the other advantages were distinctly with American oak, the experiments ended in satisfying them that Memel was much less suitable for their trade, apart altogether from the expense, and I understand, if they were faced with the alternative, they would pay a higher price for American oak than Memel.

What surprises me, is that Scotch and English brewers who have a fair trade in stout, do not follow the example of the famed Irish porter brewers and use American white oak, or, as they are called, Quebec casks for porter. Till very recently they were considerably cheaper, and I understand are still soma what so, and it is surprising that any brewer exports stout in anything else but Quebec casks, although the fact is that the largest exporters of stout do so. I have met the objection repeatedly to the use of Memel casks for ale and Quebec casks for porter, the difficulty of distinguishing the one from the other, but that can be overcome by simply having the ale casks painted white and the porter red."
"Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 12", 1906, pages 691-692.

Interesting that. How Dublin brewers used American oak. And that it supposedly contributed to the Dublin Porter flavour. I think it's safe to assume that they're talking about Guinness. At that time not only the largest brewery in Ireland, nor even the largest brewery in the United Kingdom, but the largest brewery in the world.

Though the author then goes on to point out that there was no appreciable difference in the flavour of Porter stored in American as opposed to Memel oak. But that American oak was less prone to damage.

I've included a final quote, because of what it reveals about lining barrels with pitch:

"Two classes of oak have recently been tried and are, I understand, used on the Continent to-day, even varied lots of casks so made have been imported to London. I refer to Hungarian and St. Petersburg oak. To those who pitch or resin their casks no objection may be taken to timber of that class, but for ordinary use as pale ale casks they will never do. In the manufacture of these casks the steaming process brings out simply "stink," which, if any brewer ever felt he would not allow within any reasonable distance of his brewery. It behoves you, therefore, to see that in ordering casks you insist upon having them made from Crown Memel Oak. It is only fair to add that the coopers in Scotland have not gone into this class of oak. I would feign express the hope they never will.
"Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 12", 1906, page 695.

It seems clear that the reason casks made of Hungarian or St.Petersburg oak are unsuitable for Pale Ale is the flavour it imparts to the beer, if you don't pitch-line your casks. Ergo Pale Ale casks weren't usually lined with pitch. And nor were those at Guinness.

I've been looking for information about whether British casks were lined in the 19th century for a while. It's been surprisingly difficult. And much of the evidence, like that in this article, is a matter of inference. But it all points in one direction. That British casks weren't lined.


StringersBeer said...

"ordinary use as pale ale casks" wouldn't preclude lining, surely? Just not as the standard, or common, practice?

Alan said...

How instructive and irritating. A few years ago I speculated about the flavour different woods would have brought in the past to the beers -only to be told generally that the whole point was to impart no flavour. Apparently the Irish porter brewers had not been told that.

Craig said...

And how, Alan!

I just brewed an IPA based on an 1839 recipe. I included 2 oz of toasted American oak chips for 27 days in the secondary. It's very oaky.

But maybe it shouldn't be. On he other hand maybe it should.

Anybody else as confused as I am.

Ron Pattinson said...

Craig, they weren't keen on oak flavour. They tried to stop the barrel adding flavour as quickly as possible by various means. And remember how often casks were used and patched up. Beer was rarely in contact with new wood.

If you're going for authenticity, I'd say no. But there's more to life than authenticity. Does it taste good? That's the only important question.

Is that the Reid IPA you've been brewing?

Ron Pattinson said...

StringersBeer, you're right.

I eventually get bored writing too many "usuallies".

Not seen any evidence I can remember of lined casks pre-1900. But they could well have existed. 20th century, they definitely did.

Anonymous said...

Quebec oak. Wow. Since we only have one cooper left here in Quebec, I'm surprised to see Quebec mentionned in a paper from the english brewing industry from this period. But you know what is more odd? I recently purchased two small casks, made of Quebec oak, and one is full of porter right now! Cask conditionning, and gravity dispense planned for the end of the week. :)

Craig said...

Ron, It is the Reid and it is quite good!

It's a nice bright copper, and the cream colored head pours 1/4 inch thick. I added Brett c. during the secondary and after a month, the IPA lost a lot of sweetness and picked up a decidedly sour note. The oak is VERY present, but not overwhelming.

I'm happy with it, but next time I'll repeat the process sans oak and see what I get.

I have the Barclay Perkins 1856 TT Porter fermenting right now. It'll go mild without any Brett and should be ready to go for Christmas Eve dinner! It's very roasty, with hints of bitter, dark chocolate and espresso. We'll see how a bitt of bottle conditioning with effect that.

Craig said...


You might find this interesting, it's from "The Theory and Practice of Brewing Illustrated, W.L. Tizard, 1846, London, 1846 :

It mentions Thrale using young oak to impart color and odor to his (what I assume is his) London-made, mid 18th-century porter.

Craig said...

Even more interesting, is this from the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 8, 1902:

It's stated that although American or "Quebec/New Orleans" makes for a tighter cask than Memel, It's oakiness is a force to be reckoned with. This seems to be a significant issue with turn-of-the-cenutry London brewers

Gary Gillman said...

I would have thought casks used and re-used many times would lose most of their tannic quality. For example, I recall drinking Sam Smith beers in England 20 years ago - I know they were in oak, I was shown the casks - and there was no discernible oakiness (unless they were lined perhaps). I doubt the wood was English or Baltic by then, it must have been North American. But even if it was European, European oak can have a smell too (think Cognac for French wood), just different than American. It's always hard to know what the real motives were for liking this wood or that. I suspect bad experience was encountered with new casks and it was assumed that would continue. And it's true, at a brewpub here beer was served for a time from a new oak cask and it was almost undrinkable. But in time the taste went away.


Craig said...

More oaky info... am I justifying my mistake, or adding to the dialogue?

"When beer has acquired a peculiar taste of the cask, either by long keeping, from the astringency of the oak, or for want of proper cleanliness, it is advisable to suspend in it a handful of wheat tied up in bag; which generally removes the disagreeable taste."

From "The dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Manufacturers..." James Smith, Boston, 1859

So, it's not out of the realm of possibility to have had an oak cask/vat, aged beer, such as an IPA, to have a slightly sour and pronounced oak flavor.

Someone please agree with me, so I can sleep tonight.