hist-brewing: Re: oak, casks, etc.

Joyce Miller msmead at doctorbeer.com
Mon Oct 18 21:25:55 PDT 1999


Well, I guess I should throw my hat in.  My husband is a legendary beer
geek, and I'm nearly as bad.  And our travel itineraries make us look like
missionaries from the Church of GodisGood.  On a recent trip to the UK, we
did 7 brewery tours in 14 days, and that isn't counting the Great British
Beer Festival and the Scotch distillery...

Today in England, "cask conditioned" ale generally means carbonated by
virtue of yeast in the *metal* casks, but there are a number of breweries
still using wooden casks.  Sam Smith's (as someone here said) is one.  All
their stuff is in wood (if it isn't in bottles).  The same is true of for
Marston's.  Their products don't taste "oaky" because they have coopers in
house who only put in one new stave at a time, as needed.  Old casks are
broken down and used to make "new" casks.  The casks are also lightly
charred, then soda washed (I think).  So still no oaky flavor.

Regarding American vs. British oak:  There is no discernible difference
between _Quercus robur_  (British oak) and _Q. alba_ (American white oak).
Both make equally fine casks.  As stated by Victor Chinnery in "Oak
Furniture:  The British Tradition", "It is virtually indistinguishable in
use from _robur_, EVEN BY MICROANALYSIS, and so it cannot be used for
defining any American origin of furniture in which it is used." (pg. 157,
emphasis added).  If professional wood anatomists can't tell...  Besides,
_Q. alba_ is what the American distilleries use.  

When people say US oak makes bad casks, they're probably thinking of _Q.
rubra_, American red oak.  This leaks like a sieve, due to the cellular
structure of its vessel elements, which are like microscopic soda straws.
Those of _Q. alba_ are like bamboo, and are plugged at regular intervals,
and don't let water run through the wood.

Maybe if you're all very, very good, I'll post the list of British cask
sizes that I copied when I was at the Bass brewery Museum (and no, that
wasn't one of the 7 breweries either).  Of course, I'll have to find it
first...     :)

-- Joyce

--- Joyce Miller, msmead at doctorbeer.com

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