Beer history real ale

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.