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.

Are attempts to innovate futile?

Detail from the cover of Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos.

We have a con­ser­v­a­tive streak when it comes to beer and, these days, find our­selves drawn to weak­er, more straight­for­ward beers most of the time. We like the idea of pre­serv­ing our brew­ing her­itage and believe that there are still pleas­ing but sub­tle vari­a­tions to be found in less showy tin­ker­ing with hops, malt, water and yeast.

We can’t, in all hon­esty, say we’ve loved many self-declared inno­v­a­tive beers – noth­ing bar­rel-aged, for exam­ple, has made our list of favourites; our mouths do now not water at the idea of an Islay lam­bic; and we’re non­plussed by the very idea of black IPA.

We also roll our eyes at brew­ers who describe them­selves as inno­v­a­tive and then… aren’t. They’re like pop groups who say their sound ‘defies cat­e­gori­sa­tion’ while pro­duc­ing mid­dle-of-the-road indie music.

Hav­ing said all of that, we’re delight­ed that there are peo­ple still try­ing gen­uine­ly to inno­vate, even if the results aren’t always instant clas­sics, and we do believe there are new flavours to be shak­en out through exper­i­men­ta­tion. Gar­lic brown­ies, thriller-action wildlife doc­u­men­taries and heavy met­al baroque vir­ginals all sound like worth­while exper­i­ments to us, though we wouldn’t want a diet of noth­ing but.

The only way to break new ground is through failed exper­i­ments and doing things that most peo­ple won’t like.

Var­i­ous posts and com­ments this week have led us to pon­der­ing this sub­ject. Here’s Zak Avery on ‘wacky’ beers as part of a bal­anced diet; Velky Al at Fug­gled on his pref­er­ence for beer that tastes of beer with an inter­est­ing com­ment from Ron Pat­tin­son; and Knut Albert on two beers he thinks prove the point that there are new things to be dis­cov­ered.