One of the most frequent questions we get is “Do you store your beer in wooden casks?” Thankfully for all of us, the answer is no. Wooden Cask is just the name of our brewery, not how we store our beer.
Wooden Cask is a nod to how beer used to be stored and served before the inventions of metal kegs. Beer was stored in wooden casks and served through wooden spigots that were hammered into the cask.
Before metal kegs were invented, and even wooden casks, beer and wine were actually stored and served using clay pots and urns or “amphorae.”
Wood replaced clay vessels because of their durability and ready access to raw materials. These wooden containers were usually made of oak and other hardwoods that were known to be non-toxic. The wood may have been non-toxic, but it was very susceptible to infection. Wood obviously is not the easiest to clean and therefore could not be sterilized.
Infections weren’t all bad though. For sour beer lovers, you might want to thank wood’s susceptibility to infections. An unintentional infection caused the beer to spoil, or what we now call souring. Thankfully, the process of brewing sour beers has modernized and does not require an infected wooden beer barrel.
What was bad about beer in wooden casks was its short shelf life. Not only was carbonation an issue with wooden casks, but beer at the time was unfiltered and unpasteurized. Pasteurization is the process by which beer in a bottle, can or keg is rapidly heated and then cooled. This ensures that any organism that may be purposely or un-purposely left in the beer is killed. Metal kegs allowed for the invention of pasteurization.
Wooden casks continue to store beer in the United States until the end of Prohibition in 1933. When Prohibition ended, coopers (a cooper is an individual trained to make wooden casks, barrels, etc.) were not able to keep up with the volume of beer being produced and therefore, a shortage of wooden casks occurred.
So breweries had to come up with an alternative to wooden casks. Metal, specifically stainless steel and aluminum, kegs were the easy answer. They were easy to sterilize and beer was less likely to spoil (or sour). Metal kegs could also withstand high pressure for carbon dioxide and nitrogen or both.
In an article from the Wisconsin Tales and Trails in 1966, author Robert T Holland discusses the closing of Frank J. Hess and Sons Cooperage factory.
In this age of stainless steel and aluminum, it is easy to overlook the significance of the wooden barrel in America’s past. But those who were alive in the early years of this century will certainly remember the storied cracker barrel, the sugar barrel, and the flour barrel, as well as the salt pork, dried fish, oysters, herring, and other food stuffs that were packed, shipped and displayed in wooden barrels. Produce of all kinds – from apples to molasses – moved to market in barrels. It was in barrels that Wisconsin’s famed passenger pigeons and chickens were shipped to markets in Chicago and the East by the tens of thousands. Beer, wine and other spirits were brewed or fermented and aged, as they have been for centuries, in wooden barrels, tanks or vats. And of course, at every home there was that important and all-but forgotten rain barrel, which provided a ready supply of water in case of fire, and a source of soft water for hair washing and the weekly bath. Even today, we can see the impact of the barrel on our culture, as so much of industry’s bulk measure is expressed in terms of hogsheads, barrels, and fractions thereof. The wooden barrel has indeed played a large part in our history, and the cooper has been an indispensable artisan.
During Prohibition, when many cooperages ceased to function, the Frank J. Hess and Sons Cooperage supplied barrels to the dairy industry. But the barrels were of very light construction and brought only $1.50 each. When the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, the few cooperages still in operation were deluged with orders from the brewing industry for barrels. Within a short time sixty-two cooperages around the country had opened and were operating at full capacity. Unfortunately many of them did not have enough skilled workers to produce a quality barrel. Demand for kegs caused a critical shortage and the breweries attempted to import foreign-made barrels. The Coopers International Union objected so strenuously that the importation of wooden barrels was stopped. Unable to get an adequate supply of barrels, the burgeoning brewing industry was forced to look elsewhere for substitutes. Cast iron was used first, then aluminum and stainless steel.
The use of wooden casks has not completely disappeared from the beer industry. Cask ales and barrel-aged beers using bourbon, whiskey, wine or rum barrels are very popular among American craft breweries.
Casks ales (or real ales) are also very popular. According to craftbeer.com, “a cask ale an unfiltered beer (usually ale), that is racked (transferred) into casks, krausened (carbonated), sealed and then undergoes a slight final fermentation in the cask.” They are dispensed either through a beer engine or a cask tap. Cask ales can be served from a wooden cask or a metal keg, but regardless cask ales are highly perishable and have a short shelf life; most experts say less than 48 hours.
We bourbon barrel-age a variety of our beers including our Corruption, Thin Blue Line Reserve, and Aged Scotsman using New Riff barrels.
Although our beers aren’t actually stored and served via a wooden cask, wooden casks are still a huge part of who we are and what we do with our beer.