CHEERS TO BEERS OFF THE WOOD AS WA SHEOAK
SOAKS UP DEMAND FOR BARRELS

Celebrating with a beer ‘off the wood’ at the Breakfast Creek Hotel… Tim Evans, Coast to Coast Pacfic (left) and Don Towerton, Thora Wholesale Timbers (right) congratulate veteran forester Dick Pegg (centre) on his induction into the Queensland Timber Pioneers Foresters Hall of Fame.

GLASSES were raised to a fine-textured wood from Western Australia when a group of timber types gathered at Brisbane’s historic Breakfast Creek Hotel to celebrate the relaxing of virus lockdown restrictions and to enjoy a few beers ‘off the wood’.

Western Australian sheoak is the best for beer kegs,” says Brisbane-based master cooper Michael Clowes, who teamed up with the Castlemaine Perkins Brewery in Milton to supply pubs and clubs across Australia.

Sheoak (Allocasuarina fraseriana) grows to 15 m and occurs in the coastal and hinterland regions of southwest WA from Perth in the north to near Albany in the east where it is an under-storey species for jarrah.

“Green density is about 1000 kg/m3, the air-dry density about 730 kg/m3, and the basic density about 620 kg/m3, making it ideal for coopers like me,” Michael said.

“The wood has wonderful bending capabilities using steam and is much thicker than other timbers such as American oak, which are used more for whiskeys and wines. The thickness also guards against the pressure from the beer inside the keg.”

Bar attendant Kate Fien serves the famous beer off the wood at the Breakfast Creek Hotel.

Michael lines his beer kegs with ‘brewer’s pitch’, a special recipe of melted resin imported in blocks from Germany.

“The resin is good for yeast growth and gives a good malty beer taste, but more importantly it maintains hygiene within empty kegs.”

Some coopers char their barrels, re-charring them for a specific flavour in a specific beer to achieve a fiery, smoky quality – an extension to choosing different hops, grains or yeast strains.

The Breakfast Creek Hotel was opened on May 17, 1890, and the upper floor of the 1889 building contains large rooms which have hosted meetings by the Australian Timber Importers Association, the Queensland Timber Board and the Brisbane Timber Industry Hoo-Hoo Club.

Forty years ago a future prime minister was called in to help end a rebellion over a push to abandon wooden kegs from the hotel.

In the late 1970s, brewing companies were phasing out wooden casks, preferring to deliver beer in stainless-steel kegs and intricate piping systems.

The brewers argued coopers, who made the casks, were increasingly hard to find and wooden kegs were out of step with modern brewery processes.

But drinkers at the ‘Brekky Creek’, led by an outspoken lot of waterside workers, marched in protest to the headquarters of Castlemaine Perkins, makers of the famed XXXX beer, delivering a petition of more than 300 signatures demanding retention of wooden kegs. Then ACTU boss Bob Hawke, who would later become PM, spoke with managing director Paddy Fitzgerald to settle things.

Eventually, Fitzgerald conceded and joined drinkers in the public bar to mark the occasion.

And as demand grows for timber kegs, a report just in says furniture prices in Japan are on the rise, with a growing popularity of domestically made whisky and its aging casks contributing to a shortage of timber.

White oak, favored for its strength and durability, is the material of choice for making whisky barrels, which are fabricated from straight-grain lumber, which can come only from trees with straight annual rings.

Japanese whisky has won fans across the world and producers have responded by boosting whisky production, driving up demand for aging barrels – and timber.

Wooden barrels have certainly been around for a long time. An Egyptian wall-painting discovered recently in the tomb of Hesy-Ra, dating to 2600 BC, shows a wooden tub made of staves, bound together with wooden hoops.