The woodbegoods

There’s an odd feeling, like you’re doing something slightly illegal, when drinking and discussion beers that would have been poured down the drain by every generation of brewers before this one for being irredeemably faulty. But 21st century brewmasters have discovered the flavour found in wood, and declared it good.

Unlike wine-makers, especially many white wine makers, and distillers, especially whisk(e)y distillers, brewers who have used wooden fermenting vessels and wooden casks always made it an axiom not to have any influence from the wood apparent in their beers. Wood flavours were fine in chardonnay, or scotch, but not in IPA or porter.

Oak for casks, vats and brewing vessels was sourced from places such as Russia and Poland that were known for growing wood that would not impart any flavours to the beer. Casks were lined with “brewer’s pitch”, vats were scrubbed down so that when stock ales, porters and stouts were being matured in them, no tang of the timber would come through into the beer. Once fermenting vessels began being lined with metal, and steel and aluminium casks came in, wood flavours disappeared as a worry.

The introduction of wood flavours as a desirable characteristic, in the UK at least, was a serendipitous discovery springing from the wish of the Scotch whisky distiller William Grant in 2002 to add to its range of “cask reserve” whiskies, all finished off in casks that had previously held other alcoholic drinks, such as sherry or rum. Grant’s wanted a beer to fill casks with and enable it to make “ale cask reserve” whisky once the beer had been emptied out.

Dougal Sharp, then of the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh, designed a malty, estery, sweet, not very hoppy beer he and Grant’s felt would give the casks a good foundation for maturing whisky in. The beer was aways meant to be thrown away once it had been in the casks long enough to impart flavour to the wood that could be absorbed subsequently by the whisky. But workers at Grant’s distillery sampled the beer, and liked the oaky, vanilla flavours it had picked up from the new wood so much that instead of disposing of it they started taking it home …

Intrigued, Sharp tried putting the beer into a blind tasting at the brewery, where it scored a consistent nine out of nine with the tasters. The “tweaked” version of their original brew for Grant’s that Dougal and his father Russell launched in 2003 as Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer has been so successful subsequently it has effectively launched a completely new category in the UK marketplace – wood-aged beer.

Which is why I was at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire last Monday for the Zythographers’ Union’s latest seminar, tasting different styles of beers aged in different ways in different types of cask, and listening to Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery, John Keeling of Fuller’s in London and Dougal Sharp himself talk about their wood-aged beer experiments and experiences.


The discussion roved over subjects as different as the influences that come from what the casks were previously used for, such as ageing bourbon; the desirability or not of organisms such as Brettanomyces, a yeast traditionally associated with ageing beer in wooden vats, which tends to arrive on the scene after the Saccharomyces yeast has retired exhausted; and the legality of “grogging” – for which see later.

I’ll put my hand up here and say I’m not an enormous personal enthusiast for Innis & Gunn – I don’t like oaky flavours much, I don’t like chardonnay, for example, and I like my whiskies peaty rather than oaky. I prefer I&G beer when it’s had some bottle-age – about a year old, and the vanilla-and-oak smack has rounded down enough for me to enjoy. But I&G is the beer I will guarantee you can give for the first time to almost anyone, particularly people who are not normally ale drinkers, and they will say: “This is fantastic! Where can I get it?” Anything that helps raise awareness of what a huge variety of flavours beer can have has to be supported, and I’m delighted, therefore, that the beer is so widely available after just a short time in the market.

While I&G has relatively few imitators in the UK yet, Garrett Oliver, the first speaker at Monday’s seminar (zooming through on his way to Sweden – has the mantle of The World’s Top Writer On Beer ™ dropped onto Mr Oliver’s shoulders?) revealed that some 200 or so of the 1,500 craft brewers in the United States now make a wood-aged beer of some sort, with a small handful making all-Brettanomyces beers– Russian River in California, for example, and its fellow Californian Pizza Port, with Mo’Betta Bretta

Brooklyn Brewery’s own experiment at making a wood-aged beer, a 10 per cent abv stout put into specially selected Bourbon barrels, Garrett revealed, was called “Black Ops”, partly because it was kept a secret and partly because “we may never sell it”. It came after he had asked other American craft brewers via the Brewers Association Forum about the methods they used in making wood-aged beer, and received an eclectic range of responses. Beer styles that had been aged in oak deliberately to get oak flavours included Imperial stout, barley wine, Belgian abbey-style ale, brown ale, red ale, Wee Heavy, cherry stout and Belgian golden ale. Barrels used were mostly Bourbon (by law, Bourbon distillers can only fill fresh, unused barrels, and thus have a lot of barrels to get rid of once each batch of Bourbon is mature enough for bottling), but also red wine (in particular Pinot Noir) and white wine.

Some brewers steamed the casks before filling them to try to sterilise them, others flushed them with CO2 or SO2, but most used them as they came, generally (if they were Bourbon barrels) with a couple of pints of whiskey still inside to help keep the staves moist. No one method seemed to make much difference to how the beer turned out after its time in the cask, though obviously those beers matured in casks that had Bourbon still in them when filled had more Bourbon character in the final result..

Garrett’s conclusion, from his survey, was that wood-ageing has become another flavour tool for modern brewers: not a traditional tool, at all, but now an accepted part of the “creative toolkit” – and one popular enough among consumers for there to be barrel; and wood-aged beer festivals in the US. It’s a situation which enabled him to declare confidently on Monday: “We [brewers] will use barrels in a more interesting way that any of the other drinks disciplines.” That’ll wind the wine makers up – I hope he says that in the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Beer, due 2010, which Mr O has accepted an invitation to be editor-in-chief of (he is taking on the mantle of The World’s Top Writer On Beer ™ …)

Dougal Sharp spoke next, revealing some interesting wrinkles about the production of Innis & Gunn: the oaky flavours disappear, apparently, immediately after the beer is bottled, and don’t reappear for a month, so every bottle has to be kept at least four weeks before it is released for sale, for the proper taste to return. This confirms something I’ve observed myself, but haven’t quite been able to believe: beer in bottle doesn’t like rough handling, and if you bring beers straight home from the store by car and open them that night, they won’t taste as good as they will if you let them settle for a day or longer.

John Keeling, director of brewing at Fuller’s of Chiswick, then revealed his brewery had been experimenting with “whisky beer” for four years, since a meeting he had with Glenmorangie’s head distiller on another subject touched on the idea. Fuller’s has been trying different combinations: Golden Pride in Glenmorangie casks, for example, where a mixture, it seems, of secondary fermentation and leaching out from the cask of whisky that had soaked into the wood saw the abv of the beer rise from 8.5 per cent to a seriously oomphy 12.5 per cent; Vintage Ale (the version of Golden Pride normally sent out bottle-conditioned) matured in ex-Jim Beam casks, where the beer saw a similar rise in abv to 11.5 per cent; and Glenmorangie casks filled with 1845 and ESB export.

The whisky-cask beers were a success, but the huge problem Fuller’s has had is with Customs and Excise (now Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs). Since 1898. “grogging” – the extraction of spirits from the wood of an empty cask by putting a couple of gallons of water in it and turning it over and over – has been illegal. But is filling an empty whisky cask with beer, into which some spirit that has previously soaked into the wood inevitably migrates, grogging? .As John explained it, different Customs officers give very different, and conflicting, replies when asked about this. One told him Fuller’s would have to have a spirits licence, and own a still, to be able to sell beer matured in whisky casks – but brewers aren’t allowed to own stills, at least not on the brewery premises …

So now, John said, “we have 100 barrels of whisky beer we’re not able to sell,” stuck in a legal limbo. One solution, Fuller’s hopes, would be to bottle the whisky beer in memory of Michael Jackson – who was, of course, as famous for his whisky writing as for his beer writing – and sell it through the Michael Jackson Beer Club with the proceeds going to a charity such as the Parkinson’s Disease Society.

Meanwhile there is nothing to prevent Fuller’s from giving the beer away, and John had brought up five or six different examples for us to try. The first was probably closest to the sort of “commercial” whisky beer the company might introduce if it ever gets Customs to unbend: a mixture of Fuller’s 1845 and ESB, both matured in whisky barrels, then blended with fresh ESB to bring the abv down to a more comfortable 7.5 per cent. Surprisingly, the 1845, which has a strongly malty flavour from the amber malt in its grist, was the dominant beer despite being only a minority in the blend. There was vanilla right at the back, but much less than you’ll find in Innis & Gunn, oak towards the front, a little bit of orange, and some spirit on the nose.

An “uncut” export ESB matured in Glenmorangie casks showed much greater influence from the spirit – indeed, it was more like a beer that had simply had a shot of whisky tipped in, suggesting you need an ale stronger than ESB’s 5.5 per cent abv to work properly in whisky-cask ageing. This was born out by the next, and more successful, example, 1845, which is 6.3 per cent, again matured in Glenmorangie casks. Something earthy was lurking in the background on the nose, indicating Brettanomyces may have got in, but this was rich, spirituous, somehow sweet and dry at the same time, with vanilla and orange alongside whisky aromas.

If the 1845 has suggested slight Brettiness, the Golden Pride from ex-Jim Beam casks, a substantial 11.75 per cent abv, was unbelievably Bretty – Brett and oak on the nose, Brett, Bourbon and oak in the mouth. Brett is a desired characteristic in vat-aged beers such as Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, where it adds to the complexity, but this was like the whole orchestra being outnumbered by the trombone section. The next beer, Golden Pride matured in a Glenmorangie cask, was a return to something more normal – indisputably changed by its experience, with an oaky sweetness, and citrus and orange more noticeable than in the “straight” beer, it would make a good “after dinner” winder-down.

Thornbridge Hall has had its own brewery since 2005, and the Thornbridge Brewery guys have been making their own experiments with wood-ageing beers, so the entire seminar – 30 or so brewers, beer writers and others – shifted outside for an open-air tasting of oak-aged stout and barley wine. The first beer was a “chestnut honey” stout, made with Italian chestnut honey, that had spent “some time” in oak casks. If you’ve never had Italian chestnut honey, it has a distinctive bitter flavour that pushed its way through to the front in the stout, giving an almost medicinal air to the beer. That’s not a criticism: this was a warming, medium-rich stout that I liked increasingly as the glass went down.

The other Thornbridge “wood-aged” beers included a stout aged in Mortlach whisky casks, where spirit rather dominated the flavour: it would have been interesting to try this blended with “normal” stout. Indeed, the last beer, brought along by Chris “Podge” Pollard, was just this sort of blend: two thirds Podge’s Belgian Imperial Stout (brewed in Ingelmunster) that had spent five months in an oak cask, blended with one third fresh stout. Blending fresh beer with aged beer is an old technique that used to be known in the British Isles as “gyling”, from the original meaning of the word “gyle”, freshly fermenting wort, though today brewers use the equivalent German word, kräusening.

The result of the blending is often a vigorous second fermentation, and Podge admitted some of his bottles of the blend had fountained spectacularly when he removed their caps, so we all shuffled away from him as he prepared to pour us a beer in the Thornbridge Hall bar. No fountains this time, instead a stout where the sweetness of the original beer (too sweet for me, actually) was well balanced by the vanilla and oak picked up from its time in wood.

The consensus, on the coach travelling back to Sheffield Station, was that wood-ageing, although only a few years old as a technique, has a great future as a way of putting even more flavour choices in front of beer drinkers. The only barrier, in the UK at least, is the blinkered attitude of HM Revenue & Customs, who want to impose 19th century restrictions designed to ensure all alcohol sold was taxed to a 21st century environment where the whole basis of alcohol taxation has changed. With “factory gate” taxing, unlike the old system where beer was taxed on its original gravity, any alcohol “liberated” from the spirit casks by the beer being stored in them will be taxed anyway. Time for pressure on the Treasury and HMRC from SIBA, the Independent Family Brewers and the Parliamentary Beer Club, I suggest.

6 thoughts on “The woodbegoods

  1. Thanks Martyn, that is quite interesting. I grew up in Nova Scotia and at university was a regular consumer of amateur grogging or, as we called it, “swish” from the local rum factories. I wonder what a good black rum swish barrel would do for a stout. And is anyone doing a sherry barrel beer? Even with, I think, the solera system hanging on to the barrels longer than for, say, bourbon, it would be interesting to try a lush brown ale with aging in an East India or cream sherry casks which had the sweetness of the Pedro Ximénez in them.

  2. How about JW Lees Harvest Ale specials in wooden fortified wine casks, or the original batch of Thomas Hardies, they both predate Innis & Gun, why do they not mark the start of wood aged beers in the UK?.. I suspose the wood isnt the focus with these examples.

  3. While wood isn’t the focus, are they not framed by the fact of being in the wood. I know “framed” is sort of a meaningless word but it reminds me of what David Line wrote in a full chapter in his 1970’s “The Big Book of Brewing”, the best book by the best beer-vangelist of the pre-TWTWOB era. He wrote about how at that there was a loss of the beers brewed for the wood and that he considered the chapter an effort to retain a rapidly disappearing part of brewing heritage. He does, however, describe the insides of the casks as rough and porous requiring careful sterilization and other treatments. Is it possible that not all brewers were using brewer’s pitch?

  4. I doubt that everybody used pitch inside their casks, but they would have tried to keep them as smooth and clean as possible inside: “stock” ales were looking for an effect from the Brettanomyces yeast and other friendly organisms to be found in wooden casks, but pre-21st century brewers went out of their way to avoid flavours from the actual wood getting into the beer …

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