During one of my cask tappings last week in Georgia, a drinker mentioned he was disappointed that Clipper City hadn't used a wooden cask.
I mentioned the paucity of wooden beer casks available today - the dwindling reservoir of able coopers. I pointed out that as with today's stainless steel casks, wooden barrels, pre-20th century, were the vessels not the ingredients.
Some home brewers and professional brewers add oak chips to their beer during fermentation or aging. The practice stems from the belief that the oak casks used to ship IPAs to India imparted some flavors to the beer during the long voyage. My research indicates that the oak used for cask production in 19th century Britain was harder and contained fewer tannins than the oak we use in this country. I find no evidence that oak casks used in shipping contributed to the beer's flavor profile. If anything, the strict standards for entry into India suggest that had the oak changed the flavor, the brewers would have changed cask material.
India Pale Ale, Part II: The Sun Never Sets--
In the recent past, many winemakers, especially Californian, were emphasizing bourbon-like oakiness almost over the grape itself. There has been a reaction against this, and the flavor of the wine itself is regaining favor among vintners, as of course it should.
At Clipper City Brewing, I and past head brewer Scott Dietrich encouraged the development of a cask ale program. Owner Hugh Sisson provided the imprimatur and funds. But it has been our cellarman, Stephen Marsh, who has developed and fine-tuned the production procedures. Regular cask ale production might be common for many breweries in the U.K., but not so much here in the States, where bottles and kegs predominate. Props to Stephen!
To finish, read this concluding passage from the above article. How times have changed since its publication in the early 1990s.
There are brewers who tell me that they will not brew a hoppy India Pale Ale, one that is strong in the tradition of the style. Again they cite customer concerns. My suggestion is always the same: Do not underestimate the tastes of your customers. Sure, the strong bitterness and high alcohol content are not for everyone, and some customers will definitely not like the beer. But, remember that as the brewing revolution continues, the sophistication of the consumer grows. With the continued expansion of the pub and microbrew market, more room will open up for challenging styles like India Pale Ale.