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. Are they lined though, dit­to Theak­stons and Wad­worths? I’d have thought so.

      Gary

  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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