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.