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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 replies on “Session #138 — Return of the Wood Part II: Woody’s Revenge”

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

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).


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