hist-brewing: casks

BrewInfo brewinfo at xnet.com
Wed Oct 20 12:23:13 PDT 1999

Joyce writes:
>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...

I believe I did 7 brewery tours in 10 days, followed by the GBBF.  One
thing about British beer... I simply can't get tired of it.  I never
get "beer burnout" as I often do at the American Homebrewers Association
conferences.  Incidentally, I have photos from some of those brewery
tours on my website.  I plan to add more... I've got photos from over
two dozen breweries... just keep reminding me via email.

>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

That's not correct.  Only a small portion of Samuel Smith's casked beers
are in wood casks... most is in metal casks.  I have also seen Marston's
in metal casks (at the GBBF, for example, where I worked as a steward in
1997 and at the Real Ale Festival here in Chicago).

>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.  

That may be true, but you simply cannot find British oak anymore (at least
not some that anyone would cut down and make into anything).  There may
be no difference between British and American oak, but there certainly is
a difference between American and European oak (Limosin and Klaipeda (Memel)).

I have tasted beer made in new American Oak casks (mine) and new French
(Limosin) Oak casks... the French was barely oaky and the American
*intensely* oaky after barely a week!  I also have several British brewing
texts which specifically say that casks made from American white oak are
not acceptable for making casks due to the flavour it imparts to the beer.
They specifically said that English and European oak *was* acceptable
from a flavour perspective and that the main difference between English
and European oak is that one was straight enough to be split and the other
had to be sawn (don't recall which was which).

American distilleries use *charred* oak.  There was absolutely *no* charring
in Samuel Smith's casks (I actually spent some time in their Coopers' Room).
I'm also pretty sure there isn't any charring in any of the other breweries'
wooden casks.  Even wine casks are not charred... some are toasted, but this
is different from charring.  No... none of the beer casks I'm aware of are
toasted either...

Incidentally... if you recall I was following up on John Isenhour's
post on how quickly you must consume a cask, I stubmbled upon one
source for that info: 


>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.

I'm sure they are well aware of the difference between American white and
red oak... you see... soft spiles (the pegs you use to vent excess CO2
from cask-conditioned beer) are made either from bamboo or *American RED
oak*.  The soft spiles I brought back from the UK happen to be made from
American red oak.  I have hard spiles (which you use when the venting is
complete) made from both wood and plastic.

See also (The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood):



Al Korzonas, Lockport, Illinois, USA
korz at brewinfo.org


Traditional cask sizes are: pin (4.5 imperial gallons), firkin (2 pins),
kilderkin (two firkins),  barrel (two kilderkins), hogshead (1.5 barrels
or 54 imperial gallons), puncheon or tertian (2 barrels or 72 imp gallons),
pipe or butt (3 barrels or 108 imp gallons) and tun or ton (2 pipes or
an amazing 216 imperial gallons!).  Ships' tonnage is based on how many
ton/tun casks of beer they could hold.

Actually, there's a lot of info that might be useful for this list at:


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