Before steel casks and glass bottles, all beer was matured in and served from wooden barrels.
It’s no surprise they were phased out: wooden barrels have to be handmade and repaired by hand, they’re expensive and heavy, difficult to clean, and everything about stainless steel is just easier. But of course, easier doesn’t always mean better.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go backwards to move forwards,” says Neil Midgley, landlord of The Junction in Castleford. Along with partner Maureen Shaw, the pair run what is likely to be the world’s only pub serving all of their cask ales from wooden barrels.
Midgely ran pubs for Samuel Smith Brewery before deciding to open his own place. His first steps towards using wooden barrels came from a small beer festival before he took the big step in 2010 of going 100 per cent wood for his cask ales. He now owns 180 wooden barrels, some are ex-wine or whisky, some are 80-100 years old, there’s various woods and sizes. Midgley sends the barrels to breweries to fill up and they return them to him. Back at the pub he treats the beer like a regular cask ale, so he’s not maturing the beers, he’s just using the barrels to serve. And it’s certainly a labour of love: it’s expensive and it’s challenging.
It’s been 30 years since British drinkers got to routinely drink ales from wooden barrels and Midgley has found that the beers take on new qualities, noticeably being more mellow, soft and expansive compared to steel cask beers. That’s certainly true when you taste them for yourself: that softer, rounder, more complex quality works wonderfully on so many beer styles, including those types which didn’t even exist when wood was the cask of choice, like American-hopped pale ales. And sometimes the ghosts of those old barrels return to impart a hint of flavour – some bourbon, a little vanilla, a surprise depth previous unknown in the beer.
“Everyone told us it couldn’t be done,” says Midgley, but he’s definitely proved them wrong.
Footnote: David Litten has written a charming book about the story of the pub and its many quirks and characters. If you buy the book, called From Junk to Junction, then all of the money goes to charity. All the details are available here.
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