Session #138 – Return of the Wood Part II: Woody’s Revenge

A sea of wooden casks.

For the 138th edi­tion of the Ses­sion Jack Per­due at Deep Beer has asked us to reflect on the won­ders of wood.

Back in 2013 we wrote a post reflecting on the role of wood in the ‘rebirth of British beer’, observing that it was making something of a comeback:

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!’

In the past five years, that trend has con­tin­ued.

It is now all but com­pul­so­ry for sub­stan­tial, ambi­tious UK craft brew­eries (def. 2) to have per­ma­nent wood-age­ing facil­i­ties on the side: Beaver­town, Brew­Dog, Cloud­wa­terevery­one is doing it.

Wild Beer Co, with wood at the cen­tre and ‘nor­mal’ beer almost as an after­thought, has gone on to win major awards, carv­ing a niche which it shares with an increas­ing num­ber of oth­er wood-first brew­eries such as Burn­ing Sky and Lit­tle Earth.

In pure mar­ket­ing terms, wood is a god­send – what bet­ter way to sig­nal rus­tic authen­tic­i­ty? (Even if you fid­dle it.)

But what’s inter­est­ing to us about all this is that it rep­re­sents not just a growth in vari­ety but a broad­en­ing of the palette (as in artist’s) – anoth­er vari­able, anoth­er way to add com­plex­i­ty and depth to even quite sim­ple beers.

Impe­r­i­al stouts are great and all that but it would quite suit us if the end-point of all this exper­i­men­ta­tion was a growth in the num­ber of drink­able cask porters and IPAs with just a bit of some­thing funki­er blend­ed in, Greene King 5X style.

3 thoughts on “Session #138 – Return of the Wood Part II: Woody’s Revenge”

  1. Go to The Junc­tion in Castle­ford, there is plen­ty of drink­able beer in Wood there.

  2. A salu­tary piece, but an in-depth exam­i­na­tion of the his­to­ry of wood cask usage, as I’ve done on my site, shows that Amer­i­can oak, which is the pre­dom­i­nant form of wood avail­able today, was not gen­er­al­ly used in the past since flavours it impart­ed were dis­liked.

    There was a lim­it­ed excep­tion for porter, most­ly in Ire­land.

    This was so not just in the British beer world but for lager on the Con­ti­nent. Amer­i­cans would have used their own wood in the past, yes, but the casks were also sed­u­lous­ly lined, with pitch or sim­i­lar, to exclude the Chardon­nay like coconut taste often found in mod­ern bar­rel-aged beers.

    Hence, the link with tra­di­tion and the arti­san is ten­u­ous.

    It does­n’t mean the results are tra­duced, not at all, but in effect a new devel­op­ment has arisen, akin say to New World hops from the mid-1970s.

    (It seems Bel­gium with its eclec­tic brew­ing approach took what­ev­er casks or hogsheads it could get, and e.g. Amer­i­can wood has long been used for sher­ry butts, but that’s still a lim­it­ed qual­i­fi­ca­tion to my point above, imo).

    Gary

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