Q&A: Why Are Cask Ends Painted Red?

The Brewers' Company Cask.

Q: ‘Why do wooden beer casks have red paint on the rims?’ The Beer Nut

Having been asked this question more than a year ago we got a nudge earlier today when Barry Masterson issued the same query, with a supplementary question: Is it a special type of paint?

Ideally, we’d have liked to find a whole string of historical texts setting out how this came to be, but… Didn’t. Like many of the more functional aspects of brewery life, it seems to have gone largely undocumented, at least in readily available print sources. There is, however, this nice bit from Alfred Barnard’s 1889 book The Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland in which he describes the purpose of the painted cask-ends at Guinness in Dublin:

The heads of the casks containing single stout are painted with a rim of white, double and foreign stout, red, and export, yellow.

In other words, in this one case at least, it was a pragmatic approach to dealing with the challenges of moving and storing large amounts of different types of beer.

We decided, in lieu of contemporary evidence, that the quickest way to get to some sort of satisfactory answer was to email Alastair Simms (@AlastairSimms), Britain’s last master cooper, at the White Rose Cooperage. He told us (with some small edits for clarity):

The cask ends are painted to seal the end grain of the staves. When everybody was using wood, the ends of the casks were painted in the brewery colours. After the decline in wood, the most popular colour was red, so by default most casks ended up being painted that colour. Originally, the paint used was a special formula devised to dry quickly so a cask could be painted at both ends in an hour. Now we use acrylic paint.

Until we come across any historic material to contradict it that strikes us as a pretty good answer. Thanks, Alastair! And just to prove Alastair’s point that red is merely a matter of taste and tradition, here’s a cask of Wild Beer Co Shnoodlepip painted grey!

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

And, as far as we know, no-one died as a result.

11 thoughts on “Q&A: Why Are Cask Ends Painted Red?”

  1. There was also the suggestion, which I mentioned on Twitter, from a pre-WW I article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing that different colours would signify different wood sources for casks. At the time, there was a fetish not to use oak of American origin for pale ale, yet in Ireland the brewers had no objection for their specialty of stout. As some English brewers brewed both stout and ale, the suggestion was made that different colours would ensure the casks were not mixed up in the same plant. The comments were phrased as a suggestion to the trade, so it is not clear that anyone actually followed it, but I’d think it likely some did simply due to this intense concern with not using the wrong wood for some beers.

    I also believe, but it’s speculation, that some brewers wanted to re-fill casks with the same beer type, i.e., irrespective of oak origin.

    The sealing statement is interesting, I’d like to know more about it. Was the idea that beer would leach through that part of the head unless closed? That seems unlikely as that part of the wood is fairly solid. Perhaps just to ensure an even finish? It’s an interesting question whether every brewery did this in the 1800s, say. I’d think not but the nature of black and white photography precludes being certain.

    Gary

  2. This may help a bit on the leaking aspect:

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=0PHcCQAAQBAJ&pg=PA70&dq=painting+ends+of+barrels+coopers&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=painting%20ends%20of%20barrels%20coopers&f=false

    It’s Jancis Robinson, certainly highly knowledgable, on barrels in wine-making. It has to do with type of wood too, as European oak is more porous than American, but also how it is sawn.

    It is extraordinary how complicated something ostensibly simple can get…

    Gary

    1. Don’t think they’re *master* coopers – you have to train an apprentice up to journeyman cooper to achieve that level, I gather.

  3. Looking back, I maybe didn’t express that very clearly: unless Mr Poulter has then himself trained an apprentice to journeyman level, and had that acknowledged by the Guild of Coopers or whatever, then he’s not a *master* cooper, just a (no doubt highly-skilled) cooper.

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