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.

(*Ahem*.)

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?