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.

Pub Design Advice from c.1968

Chris Bates worked as an interior designer for Allied Breweries (Ind Coope/Ansell’s/Tetley) between 1968 and 1970 and recently rediscovered a handbook he was given on joining the company. He kindly sent it to us to have a look at.

Before we arrange to have it added to the collection at the National Brewing Library at Oxford Brookes, where we previously dispatched The Kegronomicon, we thought we’d share some details from it here.

No author is mentioned but, based on the style and the typography, we briefly wondered if it might have been put together by the Architectural Press off the back of Inside the PubThen we recalled this bit from Ben Davis’s 1981 book The Traditional English Pub (also published by the Architectural Press):

At Ind Coope and Allsopps in Burton-upon-Trent during the early 1950s there was a group of architects whose good fortune it was to work under Neville G. Thompson as Technical Director and Carl Fairless (later Jim Witham) as Chief Architect… [Inside the Pub] became a ‘bible’ for them and their colleagues in London, Oxford, Cardiff, Burslem, and Leeds.

So we’d guess — and it is a guess, but we’ll keep nosing about — that this pamphlet is actually the product of the Ind Coope in-house team synthesising what they’d learned from Maurice Gorham et al and imitating their style.

The booklet is only 32 pages, with no pictures, and fairly sparse text, much of it comprising checklists and notes on surface materials, lighting and so on. What follows is, in our view, the most interesting stuff.

1. Distinctions Between Bars

Page 4: Distinctions Between Bars.
This section stands out in the context of the criticism directed at breweries by the early pub preservationists and other critics. The suggestion back then was that the brewers simply loved ripping out old features to replace them with characterless modern ones, the bastards. This passage rather suggests the opposite, although perhaps that final get out clause is actually the important bit, overriding everything else. Or maybe it’s that this guidance was written in the 1950s and, by the 1970s, this kind of thinking was on the way out.

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PUB BITS: Televisions in Pubs, 1955

1950s TV.

We’ve picked up lots of material on pubs that hasn’t made it into final text of The Big Project but we’re going to share some of it here in the coming months.

Back in 1955 people were really worried about the newly ubiquitous TV set killing off clubs, societies, cinemas, and even threatening the church. Publicans were grumbling, too, as journalist Derrick Boothroyd discovered when researching an article, ‘New Ideas Can Fight TV Competition’, for the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. (28/02, p.9.)

He spoke to some who ‘moaned’ that their pubs were deserted, especially when the boxing was on TV, but for balance also found someone who was more upbeat — the landlord of a ‘bright and cheerful’ public house:

TV has affected us undoubtedly… But it’s nothing like as bad as some people make out. I find the only nights that my trade is poor are when there is something really big on. Mind you, I’ve got to set out to attract people now and I think that’s what a lot publicans tend to forget. But provided you offer some incentive I don’t think TV need be feared. The average man — and the average working man in particular — is not the type who wants to stay at home every night. He wants to go out and have yap with his pals at the local — and if he has a decent local to go to, he’ll still go even if he has two TV sets. I should add however that it’s no solution to put TV in your pub. Everyone watches it and no one drinks. I’ve had mine taken out —and so have a lot other landlords.

Sixty-plus years on that still sounds like good advice to us. We hadn’t really considered it but it’s funny how many of the pubs we warm to, from down-home to high-falutin, are TV free.

Michael Jackson’s Writing for CAMRA 1977-1988

Like 80 per cent of those who write about beer in anything like a professional capacity, we’ve been commissioned to write a substantial piece about Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson as the tenth anniversary of his death approaches.

As part of that, we’ve been exchanging emails with Alan ‘A Good Beer Blog’ McLeod who is a noted Jackson sceptic. He habitually questions whether Mr Jackson’s influence was as great as the consensus would have it, and whether other influential writers (Richard Boston, Dave Line) aren’t being short-changed by Jackson’s elevation.

One specific question he put to us was this: what exactly was Jackson writing between the World Guide to Beer in 1977 and the next item on his Wikipedia bibliography, a 1986 pocket guide to beer? How could he be so influential with one book every ten years?

One answer is that that really is only a selected bibliography — we have a copy, for example, of the 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer, which is the one veteran brewers we have spoken to carried with them as they explored Europe and the US in the 1980s, and there were paperback reprints/revisions of the World Guide too.

But, as is often the case, Alan’s niggling has highlighted a real issue: the lack of a comprehensive list of Michael Jackson’s writing for magazines and newspapers which, of course, is ephemeral by nature.

For the sake of the collective brain, and also because it’s useful for our article, we agreed to make a start on a list of material published in the UK. We’ve started with the monthly column he wrote for CAMRA, a filleting of which is reproduced below with notes on the content of each article.

If you see anything there that might help with your research drop us an email (contact@boakandbailey.com) and we’ll be happy to provide more information.

The harder job, now, is tracking down the material he wrote for the national press in the same period. We have searched The Times and Guardian archives but if you have clippings, or perhaps have access to the Sunday Times archive online through your local library service, we’d welcome any tips.

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Historical Nugget: ‘Pitched’ English Lager from Leeds, 1888

Eshald Well Brewery.
‘The Eshald Well Brewery’ SOURCE: The Noted Breweries of Britain and Ireland, Vol 1.

We’ve just stumbled upon an 1888 newspaper article which gives us a fascinating account of the production of another early British lager.

The piece was published in the Leeds Times on 9 June that year under the heading ‘Breweries in Leeds and District’ and was credited to ‘A Rambling Reporter’. It is quite substantial even if it reads as something like advertorial and includes profiles of Tetley (Leeds), John Smith (Tadcaster) and Bentley & Co of Woodlesford, Leeds. The latter is by far the most interesting:

To meet different tastes and requirements ten different kinds of ale are brewed. First comes ‘Timothy’, which is exactly of the same character as the brew known in the old seats of education as ‘College ale’. Then there are X, XX, XXX, and XXXX, the number of Xs simply denoting the quantity of materials used, the strength, and price. But, after all, the distinctive features of Eschaldwell [brewery] are the Pale Ale, Light Bitter, and English Lager qualities, which differ from the X series, inasmuch as the chief element is hops, not malt.

That’s almost a tasting note, and quite a useful one. Fortunately, there is also a bit more information about the brewery’s lager in particular:

The latter only requires to be passed through a chip cask and thus obtain the pitchy flavour to serve as an admirable misrepresentation of German Lager. The English Lager has found much favour in high quarters, it is popular in the saloons of passenger steamers, and follows one of the judges about on circuit.

Gary Gillman has researched pitch, and especially the flavour imparted by pitch, over the course of many blog posts but you might start with this one if you want to know more:

Readers will recall that early court cases I’ve discussed for the Budweiser trade mark refer to pitch being imported from Bohemia to line A-B’s casks. Presumably the characteristics of Bohemian pitch were liked and its contribution to flavour wanted, no doubt an acquired taste but all tastes are in beverages. I think I can recall the taste in Pilsner Urquell from the 1970s and 80s, when the brewery still used pitched wood vessels to store the lager. It was a slightly musty taste but pleasant. Today it is absent from the beer since no wood is used in its production now.

Something about the newspaper article made us wonder if the pseudonymous author might actually be Alfred Barnard, author of the four volume Noted Breweries of Britain and Ireland, published between 1889 and 1896. Sure enough, Bentley’s is profiled in Volume I, with a passing mention for the lager:

The cellarman produced many other specimens of ale, beer and porter, among them the firm’s English lager Beer, a light, aromatic drink, quite equal to the Continental Lager, and equally sparkling.

Oddly, though, none of Bentley’s newspaper advertisements from this 1880s or 1890s mention the lager, only its bitter tonic ale, EIPA and stout. Perhaps the experiment fizzled out?

Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold & Black mentions a lager brewery operating in Bradford in 1877; William Younger of Edinburgh began producing lager from 1879; Knights Stocks & Co. of County Durham at around the same time; a dedicated lager brewery was launched in Tottenham in 1882; and in Wrexham in 1883. It sounds as if Bentley was brewing faux-lager of the sort popular among British breweries a century later but, still, it’s probably worth adding to the timeline.

Finally, as a little bonus, the article also contains a note on Bentley’s drive to premiumisation:

Throughout it is evident that while commoner tastes are not neglected, a leading idea is more particularly to cater for fastidious palates.

How 21st Century does that sound, as established UK breweries make their plays for the less price-conscious craft beer market? It’s certainly one for our file of evidence that there were beer geeks around before anyone was calling them that.

There’s a detailed history of Bentley’s by Brian Benson at the Woodlesford Station website. There’s information on how to find Alfred Barnard’s book and other useful texts here. If you want to know more about lager in Britain in the 19th Century check out Ron Pattinson’s mini-book and/or blog; the Martyn Cornell book mentioned above; and, of course, our own Gambrinus Waltz.

Update 01/02/2016: We got our Youngers confused; now fixed.