By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
Real ale has been awaiting a wood renaissance for some time. Unlike wine, port, sherry and whisky the expressions in ale are not afforded the opportunity to develop once they enter the cask, and so they are only ever as good as when they leave the brewery.
But a group of ‘woodies’ have been campaigning for a change in the steel-only model of distribution for some time, and have finally found their Mecca in the most unlikely of places.
Allow me to paint you a picture. Last year I decided to give my girlfriend a taste of The Junction, Castleford, so-called ‘Home of beers from the wood’. We boarded a rackety Pacer train out of Leeds and sat adjacent to two *picture typical Leeds United fans* on their way home from the game with a small child wedged in between them.
I could see cracks of contempt start to spread across her face as the two overweight, balding men cracked open cans of lager in front of the young boy, but even she couldn’t disguise her disgust when they lit up a cigarette as we departed the station.
Castleford is an old Roman settlement that came to life in the 19th century when the town’s population grew from 1,000 to 14,000 as the coal industry boomed. Today, a power station in Ferrybridge, various manufacturing factories and a new retail outlet in Glasshoughton is helping Castleford overcome its high unemployment rate, but the scars of the mining collapse are still prevalent.
As David Litten writes in From Junk to Junction, released today, “Castleford appeared to be a most unsuitable place to gamble on opening a real ale pub. The drinking pattern was ‘cheap and lots’. A Wetherspoons had just opened and most typical drinkers opted for lager or John Smith’s.”
To think that this “working class street corner local in a small town in Yorkshire” would become the leader of the ‘wood revolution’ rather than some expensive, trendy city centre brasserie is really quite bizarre, yet thanks to the dedication and innovativeness of proprietors Maureene Shaw and Neil Midgley, it has.
Ian Clayton recalls broaching the notion of running a pub that serves beers exclusively from the wood in his foreword. Over a pint of Golden Sands, he discussed with Neil the idea of commissioning cooper-made barrels to send to local breweries for washing and filling, perhaps half a dozen or so at a time to run alongside traditional cask ales.
Neil, in typical fashion, took the idea one step further, and one evening approached Maureene with the idea of opening the first pub in years to serve beers exclusively from the wood.
“That, in a nutshell,” says Clayton, “is how a seemingly half soaked idea came to be a quite brilliant example of how to update a system of presenting and serving beer that had worked well for centuries.”
There was some debate at first about whether beer stored in wood casks creates a distinguishable taste to beer served in its metal comparative. As Roger Protz writes, a retired brewer with Bass had told him that wooden casks were so thoroughly scoured with salt water and then boiling water that no hint of wood remained to taint the beer.
But Neil Midgley, working with Alastair Simms at the White Rose Cooperage in Wetherby, has an entirely different aim. “Neil wants the flavour of wood to shine through and make an impact on the beer. As a result the sublime blend of malt and hops is enhanced by notes of oak, smoke and vanilla, the last named derived from vanillin, a natural compound found in wood.”
During a tasting led by Protz beers from both wood and metal casks were sampled, revealing with “no doubt” that wood does enhance drinking pleasure. And word has got out in the beer industry. Neil’s example has provoked other landlords and brewers to want to get in on the act, Clayton writes, and now it seems ale connoisseurs the length and breadth of Britain want to jump on the beer from the wood bandwagon.
If you can stand 15 minutes of burly football fans, it is certainly worth trying it for yourself.
David Litten will launch his 20,000 word ‘magnum opus’ at The Junction on Thursday, November 26 at 8pm.
There will be ‘Cas Caviar’, a special one off beer from Elland Brewery called Codex and renditions of the pub anthems led by Rich Jones accompanied on the piano by Colin Williams on the night.
The book costs £7.50 from the pub or £10 mail order. All profits will go to the Alzheimer’s Society.