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.

Two Englishmen, an Irishman and a Bavarian Go to a Dinner Party…

Stan Hieronymus is hosting Session #118 this month and he has asked: ‘If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?’

Chat­ting this one over in The Crown in Pen­zance last night we decid­ed a few para­me­ters of our own:

  1. They ought to be beer peo­ple. Sure, it’d be a laugh to serve beers to Gand­hi and Boadicea and all that, but we’d go mad try­ing to choose just four.
  2. We’d stick to dead because list­ing peo­ple who are alive is a bit weird.
  3. We’d ask the guests to bring a six-pack each of their own beer, or a beer of their choice.
  4. We assume George Orwell is busy at some­one else’s din­ner par­ty, and we know Sedl­mayr and Dreher are round at Ron’s.

The first name we both agreed on, after mere sec­onds of debate, was Josef Groll (1813–1887). Here’s what we wrote about him in Gam­bri­nus Waltz, slight­ly edit­ed:

In the 1840s the burghers of the Bohemi­an city of Pilsen, want­i­ng to pro­duce Bavar­i­an-style beer, brought in a spe­cial­ist from that very part of the world – one Josef Groll, of Vil­shofen, near Pas­sau. Groll was not yet 30 when he arrived in Pilsen. He is por­trayed in por­traits as dou­ble-chinned and thick-fea­tured, with an expres­sion that sug­gests per­ma­nent indi­ges­tion. His man­ners have gone down in his­to­ry as ‘coarse even by Bavar­i­an stan­dards’, though we have found no orig­i­nal source for this claim. In Octo­ber 1842, the first batch of pale lager was brewed at the new Pilsen city brew­ery. Like Anton Dreher’s Vien­na beer, it used gen­tly-kilned pale malt after the British fash­ion, but pro­duced an even paler beer that was prob­a­bly more-or-less the gold­en-yel­low colour we asso­ciate with gener­ic lager today.

Why invite Herr Groll? Most­ly because his imprint in his­to­ry is so vague. Oth­ers wrote mem­oirs or were pho­tographed but not Groll. It wouldn’t take long to work out how coarse he was by watch­ing him at a din­ner par­ty – would he wipe his nose on the table­cloth, per­haps, or emit par­tic­u­lar­ly oper­at­ic belch­es? We’d also like to get some tech­ni­cal infor­ma­tion about the state of lager brew­ing in those ear­ly days. We hope he’d bring some chunky corked bot­tles of Pil­sner Urquell as it was in 1842 – how pale was it, real­ly, and how clean did it taste com­pared to mod­ern lagers? (We might also slip him a glass of the mod­ern stuff, though, just to see his reac­tion.)

Sir Sydney Nevil's autobiography (page spread).

We’d sit him next to British brew­ing indus­try titan Sir Syd­ney Nevile (1873–1969) whose mem­oir, Sev­en­ty Rolling Years, Boak has read back and forth sev­er­al times in the last year. If Groll was coarse, Nevile was dis­tinct­ly club­bable – con­ser­v­a­tive and pub­lic school edu­cat­ed but a hands-on brew­er ear­ly in his career, and lat­er known for his abil­i­ty to work con­struc­tive­ly with all sorts of peo­ple as a mem­ber of the Cen­tral Con­trol Board of the ‘liquor trade’ dur­ing World War I. He also liked a good feed:

It has always been my pol­i­cy… to sweet­en nego­ti­a­tions, if pos­si­ble, over a well-spread table. Many of my ‘affairs of State’ were dis­cussed at din­ner – often the din­ner was a very late one…

And it’s true – through­out the book when he recounts a strug­gle the res­o­lu­tion usu­al­ly comes after he takes his oppo­nent for a meal. Fun­ni­ly enough, he doesn’t men­tion beer all that much, so we can’t guess what he’d bring with him. Hope­ful­ly some­thing well-aged and rare from a secret stash at Whitbread’s Chiswell Street brew­ery where he worked for 30-odd years. We’d like to know what he’d think of Whit­bread today (Cos­ta Cof­fee, Pre­mier Inn, no brew­ing at all) and, as a pio­neer of the improved pub move­ment in the inter-war years, what he’d make of where we’ve end­ed up. Our sus­pi­cion is that, as a prag­mat­ic busi­ness­man, he wouldn’t be undu­ly dis­turbed by any­thing that’s hap­pened.

The founder members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Keeble; Mrs Gore.)
The founder mem­bers of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood. SOURCE: John Kee­ble; Mrs Gore.)

Next, Arthur Mil­lard, co-founder of the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood. We know no-one else cares about him, and that the SPBW is a niche inter­est, but it still dri­ves us mad that we nev­er quite got to the bot­tom of his sto­ry. He was also, we gath­er, a blunt-talk­ing char­ac­ter, as per Brew Bri­tan­nia:

In the ear­ly years, the Soci­ety found brew­ery vis­its an effec­tive way of com­bin­ing social activ­i­ty with the appli­ca­tion of gen­tle pres­sure on the indus­try. Del­e­ga­tions from the SPBW toured sev­er­al brew­eries, and Mil­lard had a rep­u­ta­tion for ‘sales-man­ag­er bait­ing’. As hap­less pub­lic rela­tions peo­ple attempt­ed to con­vince the group that the lat­est keg or top-pres­sure beer was every bit as good as the tra­di­tion­al ‘draught’ ver­sion, Mil­lard would slap them down with a blunt dis­missal: ‘Then why does it taste so bloody awful?’

We reck­on it’d be great fun to set him and Sir Syd debat­ing the ques­tion of big brew­ery keg bit­ter, safe in the knowl­edge that we could always steer the con­ver­sa­tion round to crick­et or rug­by if things got too heat­ed. (Mil­lard worked at the Bank of Eng­land and lived in Sur­rey – he was hard­ly a rev­o­lu­tion­ary.) It’d be best not to sit him next to Jo Groll, though – a grumpy Ger­man next to a fierce vet­er­an of World War II? That could get nasty. As for beer, it’d be fun to see what he makes of Brew­Dog Punk IPA. Evi­dence sug­gests that, if it was free and got him pissed, he wouldn’t be that fussy.

The fourth guest is tricky. As we’re basi­cal­ly using this din­ner to solve mys­ter­ies and fur­ther our research, it’s tempt­ing to invite Kim Tay­lor who brewed at the Orange in Pim­li­co in the 1980s and is prob­a­bly still alive, but remains elu­sive. Or what about the head brew­er at Ind Coope c.1846? He might be able to tell us, once and for all, what the heck A.K. stands for, if any­thing. Maybe the last slot could go to Andrew Camp­bell, author of the 1956 Book of Beer, whose iden­ti­ty is mys­te­ri­ous – we sus­pect a pseu­do­nym although have recent­ly won­dered if he’s the same Andrew Camp­bell who was involved in London’s the­atre scene at the same time.

Maurice Gorham
SOURCE: Adapt­ed from an image at The His­to­ry of the BBC.

In the end, though, we decid­ed that this ought to be some­one fun. With Groll growl­ing, Nevile talk­ing pol­i­tics, and Mil­lard slid­ing off his chair flick­ing Vs, we ought to have some­one capa­ble of light­en­ing the mood with some good sto­ries. So, the last seat goes to Mau­rice Gorham (1902–1975), the Irish-born, Eng­lish-edu­cat­ed jour­nal­ist who wrote The Local (1939) and its semi-sequel-cum-rewrite Back to the Local (1949), among the best books about pubs ever writ­ten. He also got in ear­ly with crit­i­cism of hip­sters:

The West End is, of course, more apt than some dis­tricts to suf­fer from the incur­sions of what we used to call the Bright Young Peo­ple; what I know think of as the Flash Trade. This men­ace has reced­ed since pre-war days when the smart peo­ple were dis­cov­er­ing the pubs and the craze for darts even brought them swarm­ing into the Pub­lic Bar. It was a ter­ri­ble thing to see this hap­pen­ing to a pub. If it per­sist­ed, the old reg­u­lars aban­doned the pub, the brew­ers redec­o­rat­ed it, the staff changed. At this stage the bright young peo­ple often desert­ed it for anoth­er, leav­ing a wreck behind.

We won­der what he’d make of tap takeovers, keg fonts and labels with skulls on?

He, thank­ful­ly, expressed firm and detailed opin­ions on beer, list­ing his favourites in order as draught Guin­ness, Younger’s Scotch Ale and Benskin’s Bit­ter. So, we’d hope he’d bring bot­tles of Younger’s, picked up in a off-licence in 1949 and some­how brought with him through the din­ner par­ty worm­hole.

Now we look at our fin­ished line-up we realise we’re in a room dom­i­nat­ed by mid­dle-aged, mid­dle-class Estab­lish­ment men. Per­haps next time this ques­tion comes up we’ll be a bit more imag­i­na­tive – do you reck­on Hilde­gard of Bin­gen would come?

Archive Round-up: CAMRA and Real Ale

One of the fun things about working on Brew Britannia was thinking aloud on the blog as we conducted our research.

We wrote quite a few posts about the pre-Cam­paign for Real Ale era and the ear­ly years of CAMRA, and we find our­selves shar­ing the links fair­ly fre­quent­ly.

With that in mind, and to give the unde­cid­ed a taster of what they might be get­ting in the book, we thought we’d cor­ral them in one place.

Pub User's Preservation Society memorabilia.

First, there was a series of posts about the organ­i­sa­tions that pre-dat­ed the Soci­ety for the Preser­va­tion of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) and CAMRA. First we dis­cov­ered the Ancient Order of Froth­blow­ers and the Pub Users’ Pro­tec­tion Soci­ety; then the Nation­al Soci­ety for the Pro­mo­tion of Pure Beer; and, final­ly, Young & Co’s 135 Asso­ci­a­tion, inspired by a pre­cur­sor to CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.

Cover of Monopolies Commission report on beer, 1969.

Try­ing to trace the devel­op­ment of the lan­guage around beer, we found a 1934 ref­er­ence to cask ale as ‘the real thing’, and con­sid­ered how that kind of gen­er­al use even­tu­al­ly led to the more tech­ni­cal term ‘real ale’. We also dis­cov­ered the role of civ­il ser­vants in fix­ing the way we use the words ‘draught’, ‘cask’ and ‘keg’ today:

We use the descrip­tion ‘draught’ beer to include any beer which is sup­plied to the retail­er in bulk con­tain­ers and drawn to order in the pub for each cus­tomer. All the large brew­ers and many small­er ones now brew a kind of draught beer which has become known as ‘keg’ beer. Although the word ‘draught’ is some­times used to dis­tin­guish tra­di­tion­al draught from keg beer, for the pur­pos­es of this report we call the for­mer ‘cask’ beer. [B&B’s empha­sis.]

And here’s what we dis­cov­ered about CAMRA’s flir­ta­tion with the rhetoric of the ‘whole food’ move­ment and ‘nat­ur­al beer’.

John Simpson's depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.

Final­ly, we con­sid­ered the cul­ture and image of CAMRA in its ear­ly years. At first, no-one seemed sure if the typ­i­cal CAMRA mem­ber was a blaz­er-wear­ing young ‘trendy’, a beard­ed hip­py, or a burly bloke with a beer bel­ly.  The beard-and-san­dals image, which CAMRA has spent decades try­ing to shake, seems real­ly to have tak­en hold after David Bel­lamy opened the 1979 Great British Beer Fes­ti­val.

Quite apart from how mem­bers looked, the ques­tion of how CAMRA was per­ceived also inter­ests us. We put togeth­er a brief his­to­ry of ‘CAMRA bash­ing’ which reflect­ed the impa­tience some ear­ly sup­port­ers, such as Richard Boston, felt over the bor­ing tech­ni­cal debates about dis­pense meth­ods which rav­aged the Cam­paign dur­ing 1977.

We also not­ed that bick­er­ing among mem­bers on the let­ters page of What’s Brew­ing (a) start­ed ear­ly and (b) hasn’t changed much in 40+ years.


Return of the Wood

Wooden barrels at the Wild Beer Co, Somerset.

The opening chapter of our book concerns the Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood, and one of the first things we learned about the SPBW is that, since the late sixties, they’ve actually been pretty relaxed about the whole wood thing.

Though car­i­ca­tured as fun­da­men­tal­ists, the Society’s founders realised ear­ly on that the beer they liked wasn’t lit­er­al­ly ‘from the wood’ in most cas­es.

When we toured a large region­al brew­ery a while ago, we spot­ted a wood­en cask sit­ting in a cor­ner. The head brew­er who was accom­pa­ny­ing us rolled his eyes: ‘We do that for one pub in the estate. The reg­u­lars insist on it. Wood’s fine, as long as you like your beer to taste of vine­gar.’

With this atti­tude hold­ing sway in the indus­try, the SPBW accept­ed that, as long as a beer was cask-con­di­tioned, even if said cask was made of met­al, it would do the job.

And yet, fifty years after their found­ing (the first meet­ing took place on 6 Decem­ber 1963), wood is sud­den­ly back in fash­ion in British brew­ing.

At the East Lon­don Cam­paign for Real Ale (CAMRA) ‘Pig’s Ear’ beer fes­ti­val in Hack­ney (run­ning until this Sat­ur­day, 7 Decem­ber), in hon­our of the SPBW, ten beers are being dis­pensed ‘from the wood’. This has tak­en some lob­by­ing to achieve, but could it become a habit? Well, why not – after all, wood­en casks are dead ‘craft’ (rus­tic, arti­sanal, hand­made) aren’t they? And wood­en casks do look love­ly.

Wooden beer casks.

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!’

Though much of the beer ends up in bot­tles or kegs, the SPBW have nonethe­less wel­comed this new (old) devel­op­ment with a mix of bewil­dered sur­prise and ‘we told you so’ delight.

It might not be ‘from the wood’, but it has been ‘in the wood’, or ‘through the wood’, and that is close enough.

In Other News

Tetley sign, Sheffield.
A Tet­ley sign in Sheffield, just because, OK?

There are a few things going on around the Blogoshire and in the real world that we wanted to highlight.

  • In our last post, we won­dered whether it was time for com­men­ta­tors to take a more assertive stance in ‘call­ing out’ the indus­try. With per­fect tim­ing, The Beer­Cast post­ed this account of a tiff with Arran Brew­ery. It’s cer­tain­ly enter­tain­ing, and exact­ly the kind of chal­lenge we had in mind, but might it not get a bit exhaust­ing to read this kind of thing every week?
  • And, final­ly… you might have noticed the blog has a new design. This new off-the-shelf theme comes with var­i­ous bells and whis­tles includ­ing dis­tinc­tive for­mat­ting for dif­fer­ent types of post, e.g. quo­ta­tions, video, audio, pho­to gal­leries, and so on. We test­ed the water with a quo­ta­tion yes­ter­day. What do you reck­on – should we stick to ‘prop­er’ blog­ging, or mix it up a bit?