Published on November 9, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour


Going down to the wood today

North East brewers have been ageing beer in wooden casks for quite some time now. Ageing in the wood has historical and romantic connotations. One of those with a heavy investment in the process is Durham Brewery and head brewer Steve Gibbs is always eager to explain how he has delved back in time to produce forward-looking beers.

“Modern breweries use wood to mature and flavour beer but it wasn’t always so,” says Steve. “Right into the 20th Century, brewers used wood because that was all they had. Casks made of wooden staves bound by iron hoops were made by hand by coopers. There was nothing special in this; indeed many commodities were transported in wooden casks, such as flour and meat.

“Sizes of casks were standardised, so if a barrel of beer was purchased, the buyer knew he had 36 gallons. Other sizes of cask had their specific designation, for instance, a nine-gallon cask is a firkin.

“Some beers were deliberately aged in the wood for a secondary fermentation by brettanomyces (a type of yeast). Porters were aged for up to a year in massive vats, gaining a vinous character much loved by Londoners. New cooperages are making new casks to satisfy the increasing demand from craft brewers, but many brewers obtain previously-used casks from whisky, wine and rum makers to benefit from their residual flavours.

“At Durham Brewery, we use whisky hogsheads – 54 gallons – to mature Temptation, Imperious and Diabolus. Currently, there are six hogsheads of Belgian-style Redemption maturing for next year and six of Bombay 106 Traditional IPA. Imperious has been bottled and should be out for Christmas.

“And our World Beer Award winner Diabolus is nearly sold out,”

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Alastair Gilmour

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