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

    1. Beer will not leach out of the cask but unsealed cask ends will absorb water, beer, dirt from roads and cel­lar floors and wear out faster.

  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

  3. Last mas­ter Coop­er? Dave Poul­ter at Sam Smiths and Jonathan Man­by at Theak­stons might argue that point!

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

  4. 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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