By Jack Peat, TLE Editor
Last summer I started writing a book exploring the understated role of wood in bringing to life regional qualities that lay at the heart of the most lauded drinks in the World. A trip to North Yorkshire, a trip to Bordeaux, a trip to Porto, a trip to Switzerland and a trip to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland later and I have 35,000 words of gold on a hard-drive doing not very much. But the premise is becoming increasingly talked about.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
At the heart of any fine claret, fortified wine, malt whisky or traditional ale lies two intrinsic qualities; wood and region. Over the course of a meal it is possible to circumnavigate the most scenic, territorially rich parts of the world through expressions in ale, wine and whisky which without wooden cask ageing would lay dormant. My book explored the complexities of these regions and how geography, and an innate human desire to be true to geography, can make a meal an adventure if the diner is mindful of these regional characteristics and traits.
The role of wood is better publicised in some regions than it is others. It will come as no surprise to most wine lovers that chateaux in Margaux use French and American oak to mature their wines and whisky fans will doubtless be aware that certain colours and expressions in a dram emanate from secondary use of port, sherry or bourbon casks. But ask real ale fans what role wooden casks play their industry and most will return blank expressions.
That’s because, for several decades, the use of wood has been absent in the ale industry, falling victim to its more commercially viable steel sister which is still overwhelmingly used despite a ‘renaissance’ of ‘real’ ale taking the country by storm. But that presents a couple of issues. Firstly, it effectively puts a stopper on how an ale matures. It also forgoes opportunities to add or enhance qualities within the ale using oxygenation and secondary qualities in wood casks such as the sherry, port and bourbon notes picked up in whisky. And, perhaps most sinfully, it drops real ale in with all the other crap lagers and bitters that became a mainstay of the late 20th century, meaning most ale is stored in the same pub cellars and ends up flat and cold in our pint pots as a result.
But there is a wind of change. In West Yorkshire several microbreweries have started to store small batches of their ale in wooden casks which allows them to continue the maturing process up until the moment it hits your glass. One landlord in Castleford has reverted back to age-old principles by running a wood-only cellar, buying in old casks and linking up with the only Master Cooper in the country to serve ales exclusively in wood casks. One barrel has been specially designed with glass ends to showcase how ales mature with age. Once tapped, punters say the same ale can taste completely different from one sitting to the next.
And wood is also being introduced piecemeal into the brewing process. In Scotland, Innis & Gunn somewhat accidently created a brew after they were approached by a whisky distiller which required help seasoning some of their oak casks with the sweet, malty character of a full-flavoured beer. Thirty days the beer was thrown out and the whisky went in.
As their website reads: “During its maturation, the Scotch acquired extra qualities from the beer-infused wood, resulting in a greatly admired dram and many repeats of the successful experiment.
“Then, months later and quite unexpectedly, our Master Brewer, Dougal, received an exciting call – this time it wasn’t the whisky getting rave reviews. Some inquisitive souls at the distillery had sampled our beer after its time in casks. We did likewise…and the taste was remarkable. It had been transformed by the oak into an unusually refined brew.”
Dougal Sharp, founder of Innis & Gunn, recently made a trip down to London to explain the process in more detail, particularly how they use their ‘oakerators’ – an oak percolator that works like an old-fashioned coffee pot – to allow the beer to pick up woody qualities.
Speaking to The London Economic, Dougal says it’s unclear whether beers that are aged from wood could catch on in the UK, but he was clear on one thing; it is not for the big breweries to interfere. “Ageing our beers in wood gives a depth of flavour that our fans are pretty keen on. It’s not an easy process and can be time-consuming so that’s probably why its best suited to smaller batches and craft brewers than the big guys.”
Innis & Gunn has announced plans to launch the first of its bar and restaurants, The Beer Kitchen by Innis & Gunn, in July 2015 featuring an extensive offering of epic craft beers, buzzing atmosphere and food served up on the brand’s home turf. Set to become the holy grail of craft beer bars (with a roll out plan for a further 5 UK venues by 2017) selected sites will also include boutique style hotel rooms.
The Beer Kitchen by Innis & Gunn will house three exposed beer tanks, guaranteeing drinkers the freshest, most flavoursome pint imaginable. A first for Edinburgh, the brand’s unpasteurised award winning lager will be delivered to the Lothian road venue straight from the brewery to the 2.5 hectolitre tanks. The venue will have an innovative food offering, with the brand woven throughout – pub classics with a beer twist, eclectic, seasonal dishes matched to perfection with specific beers and easy ‘low & slow’ cooked food.
Dougal added: “We’ve never been in better shape as a business and with our recently launched Innis & Gunn BeerBond™, plus the launch of The Beer Kitchen, 2015 is set to be an incredible year for us. Our fans have been crying out for our own bars for some time now and this news has been a long time in the making! We’ve always been craft beer champions and this venture is our new soap box.
“We want to open beer drinker’s eyes to what craft means to us at Innis & Gunn and to our craft brewing compadres around the globe! There’s no room or excuse for second rate, tasteless beer and we’ll only be serving incredible brews we absolutely love and believe in. Our venues will be about giving everyone from the beer geeks to the beer virgin, the ultimate craft beer experience and flying the flag for the craft beer movement.”