Return of the Wood

Wooden barrels at the Wild Beer Co, Somerset.

The opening chapter of our book concerns the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood, and one of the first things we learned about the SPBW is that, since the late sixties, they’ve actually been pretty relaxed about the whole wood thing.

Though caricatured as fundamentalists, the Society’s founders realised early on that the beer they liked wasn’t literally ‘from the wood’ in most cases.

When we toured a large regional brewery a while ago, we spotted a wooden cask sitting in a corner. The head brewer who was accompanying us rolled his eyes: ‘We do that for one pub in the estate. The regulars insist on it. Wood’s fine, as long as you like your beer to taste of vinegar.’

With this attitude holding sway in the industry, the SPBW accepted that, as long as a beer was cask-conditioned, even if said cask was made of metal, it would do the job.

And yet, fifty years after their founding (the first meeting took place on 6 December 1963), wood is suddenly back in fashion in British brewing.

At the East London Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ‘Pig’s Ear’ beer festival in Hackney (running until this Saturday, 7 December), in honour of the SPBW, ten beers are being dispensed ‘from the wood’. This has taken some lobbying to achieve, but could it become a habit? Well, why not — after all, wooden casks are dead ‘craft’ (rustic, artisanal, handmade) aren’t they? And wooden casks do look lovely.

Wooden beer casks.

More significant, perhaps, is the recent obsession with ‘barrel ageing’, derived from Belgium via the United States. Though it is not always used quite as Arthur Millard and the other founders of the SPBW might have hoped, hip young brewers positively fetishise wood. At the Wild Beer Company in Somerset, barrels — their source a closely guarded secret — are cooed over like newborn babies: ‘This one was used for Pedro Ximenez — smell it!’

Though much of the beer ends up in bottles or kegs, the SPBW have nonetheless welcomed this new (old) development with a mix of bewildered surprise and ‘we told you so’ delight.

It might not be ‘from the wood’, but it has been ‘in the wood’, or ‘through the wood’, and that is close enough.

12 thoughts on “Return of the Wood”

  1. I’m pretty sure that all OBB is from the wood. Lees used to have wood as well as metal. Pubs would specifically order one or the other and you could almost always tell which it was. Taint from wood and the difficulty of cleaning was what did for them at Lees.

    As a cellarman, they are a bugger to work with too.

    They are a curiosity these days and frankly, not to be encouraged.

    1. There’s an interesting tension in all this: the keg beer made by Watney’s and others was too sterile; but wood is dirty.

      And ditching wood because it’s difficult to manage doesn’t seem that far from ditching cask because keg is easier again.

      (Not necessarily passionate advocates for ‘beer from the wood’ ourselves, but interested in exploring this a bit.)

      1. I think that’s precisely the point, though. Keg was pushed for having these qualities of convenience & sterility, but it had (has) an adverse effect on the beer in ways which are identifiable and measurable (lack of yeast in suspension, presence of forced carbonation & refrigeration). If you can have beer that hasn’t suffered in those ways and also have a bit of convenience and keep your hands a bit cleaner, why wouldn’t you? This is why it’s actually really important that there’s a definition of “real ale”, complete with numbers. Personally I think it could probably be stretched slightly – to include cask breathers, for example; it’s about the state of the beer that comes out of the tap, not tradition for its own sake.

        1. Where’s the line between ‘taint’/infection/dirtiness and complexity/character, though? Wouldn’t some relatively uncomplicated cask ales benefit from another layer and type of flavour, assuming it could be controlled?

          1. Sure, there are different lines to be drawn for different purposes, or even by different people or at different times – the current vogue for sour beers makes me wonder if some beers I’ve taken back could have been appreciated as delicacies (or at least sold as delicacies…). I guess what Wild et al are doing is making beer even dirtier than it used to be, except in pubs with really lazy cellarmen – then cleaning most of it up & sticking it in kegs. Those wacky crafties.

  2. I’d think wood was a lot more stable for beer at a time – the heyday of English brewing – when the mean strength was much higher and they used 6-10 times more hops than now, circa-1870, say. Also, the books then contain many injunctions about how to clean casks and detect off barrels (“stinkers”), clearly there was a concern to keep the beer as free from acid as possible. Some of it probably was off in this sense from time to time. I don’t believe this was characteristic.

    Gary

  3. I was talking to a chap proudly wearing his SPBW 50th anniversary tie at pig’s ear last night. He was slightly ambivalent about barrel-ageing, said he hoped people would serve from the wood as well as ageing in it…

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