What’s all this about wooden casks then? The Junction Cas’ part II

Junction Neil

Neil Midgley. Landlord of The Junction

It was very clear from my visit, that The Junction, Castleford is a brilliant community pub, but it’s also a very good real ale pub, with a unique ‘from the wood only’ selling point. So, what’s all the fuss about these wooden casks, I wanted to know?

Well I tried some beer from the wood at Wakefield CAMRA beer festival. I was impressed but I didn’t have a touchstone as I was unfamiliar with the beers I tried. This was also the case here. My first taste was Cas Vegas from local The Revolutions brewing Co. Excellent, so I had another, I really like a lot of what this musically inspired brewery are turning out at the minute. Sods law though, the barrel ran off, so I tried the ‘one off’ Elland brewery special – Codex, a ruby ale from which you definitely got a feel of the barrel. Anyway, while I’m stood talking I saw landlord Neil Midgley pulling through a new beer, which turned out to be Elland Beyond The Pale. I like this and I’m familiar with it having drunk it on many occasions. I’ve even been lucky enough to have tried it on a ‘self service’ arrangement in the brewery itself.

Although I do not posses the necessary talent to elevate myself to the beer tasting level of Roger Protz, like him, I am now able to say that the wooden casks at The Junction definitely give something else to the beer. Something that is not present when it is served from a standard cask. Now if you asked me what that something else would be, then I would be hard pressed to put it in words. I think I’ve previously said the wood imparted an ‘old fashioned’ and very much improved feel to the beer. If you read David Litten’s book about The Junction you will see what Roger Protz thought.

 

Junction tap list

Junction tap list

Before I tried another, I had a chat with Neil. He drew me towards a Kirkstall brewery, Herzblut. He promised me it would be special, having been barrel aged in a Madeira cask. The very deep brown ale was unbelievably complex, with many layers of flavour, yet still with the same additional extras that everything else I tried had. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Neil summed it up for me, ‘it adds another dimension’.

I wished I had known earlier in the year because I turned down the opportunity of having a taste of an IPA that Andrew Usher’s had sent half way round the North Atlantic on a yacht. At the time, I thought it sounded a bit gimmicky, having said that, if I had a yacht I think it would have been a good idea. I’ve never had a yacht, or any sort of a boat. It always strikes me that you spend more time fannying about with boats than you do actually sailing them. Coincidentally, one of the reasons I sort of drifted away from the Scooter scene. I’m more interested in actual riding than stood at the side of the road, tinkering, talking, comparing and admiring. Okay, if you’ve got a Scooter with an original cast iron barrel then there are heat capacity issues and you can’t go very far without stopping for half an hour and letting everything cool down. Most people have moved on though and uprated to a modern alloy barrel. It works, my mate did Leeds to Isle of Wight in one run, with no more stops than a family with small kids would make. I chickened out and drove the van!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

LCGB 50th anniversary IOM

Now you might think I’m going off message here, but I’m not. The point looks like, from a Scooter perspective, that modern is best. Now air cooled cast iron cylinder barrels are principally a twentieth century phenomena and internal combustion technology is, in historical terms, still evolving. On the other hand, stout wooden casks have been around for several millennia, their evolution stopped a long long time ago. The Worshipful Company of Coopers was awarded their Royal charter in 1501 and casks haven’t changed that much since. So we are looking at a relatively simple, yet highly developed piece of engineering which is prized by connoisseurs for it’s ability to react with whatever liquor is contained, imparting complex flavours that plastic or steel cannot do.

On the basis of everything above, I am now convinced that wood is best, so get yourself down to The Junction for some of those beers from the wood, glorious wood. I’m predicting a rise in the availability of ale from wooden casks in 2015, certainly in the West Yorkshire area. Something that is undoubtedly due to the pioneering spirit of Neil Midgley at The Junction.

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3 thoughts on “What’s all this about wooden casks then? The Junction Cas’ part II

  1. Hello Richard, Gary Gillman here from Toronto. Found this interesting post via @boakandbailey’s blog entry today.

    The history of cask usage in British brewing has received a certain amount of attention from those who are interested in beer and brewing history.

    In a nutshell, until WW II, the type of wood used for this purpose was carefully chosen and was usually from a specific part of East Europe, in what is now Lithuania. The wood, although in fact it was fetched from a broader radius in the East, was called “Memel” or Baltic wood.

    This wood was admired because brewers stated it imparted little flavour to beer. They contrasted this wood with American oak, then available either as new casks or ex-American whiskey barrels. The American oak was noted as imparting undesirable flavours to wood and in particular a “coconut” taste was mentioned. That taste is familiar to anyone who has tasted bourbon whiskey or Chardonnay wine. It can be a vanillin taste too.

    Most barrels available today to brewers are in fact American wood, eg. almost all Scotch whisky barrels are, and much of the sherry and other fortified wine barrels used in Spain are. Some are not, and some wood from France and Spain or Portugal is used to hold wines from these places and some end up in whisly warehouses, but the majority certainly are American oak and impart the same taste (in my experience) noted by British brewers 100 years ago and more.

    Now, I don’t in any way suggest the taste in question is good or bad; taste is always subjective, but I wonder if the something “extra” you noticed is from American oak and would not have characterized British beer in the past. Some of what you tasted may have been from Spanish or Portugal oak, which can have its own specific character, different from both American wood and Memel.

    Anyway sorry for the longer-than-normal post and if interested I can pass on some historical references on this matter of what British brewers (in the past) generally liked in their cask wood. By the way and to be fair, there was a big exception to the general non-use of American oak in the past: Guinness in the 1800’s liked this wood and used a lot of it to store and ship its beer.

    Gary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Gary,

    Glad you liked my post, thanks. Your comments have raised a lot of questions for me. Some of which are probably answered in my friend, David Litten’s book ‘From Junk to Junction; The Renaissance of The Junction Castleford’, which prompted this and a previous post (You can obtain a copy of the book from the email address on the previous post ‘The Junction, Cas’). The pub in question having a strict ‘ale from wooden casks’ policy, something which I believe is unique in the UK. There is obviously a lot more for me to learn about wooden barrels, but I am lucky enough to be in walking distance of The White Rose Cooperage, who have sourced, made and maintain the wooden casks for The Junction, so watch out for future posts on the subject.

    Richard.

    Like

    • Thanks Richard! It’s great you are near the cooperage because that way in time you can learn more hopefully in time about the different woods and effect on the palate.

      I’m very supportive of the pub’s approach. All beer once was sold from the wood, so it’s a return of old tradition as you said.

      Maybe it will specialize ultimately in different types of wood tastes (American, English, Iberian, East European), just as beers offer different hop tastes from around the world. Hope to visit there one day.

      By the way I know Leeds fairly well, having visited numerous times in the last 20 years – a great city and great beer culture.

      Best regards.

      Gary

      Liked by 1 person

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