Pitched Lager

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Why engage in beer historical studies? There are many reasons. Some study it as part of economic history, e.g., Peter Mathias’ landmark study of the London porter brewers in The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830 (1959).

The book illuminated a period of technological growth and emergence of modern business structures. Alan Pryor’s recent multi-part essays in the journal Brewery History have revealed numerous salient features in this vein. His focus on the efficient use of mashes to maximize alcohol yield and profit is of particular note. His discovery of a poem in which porter is referred to as an amalgamation of qualities in my opinion links its development firmly to three-threads, on which I have written earlier.

Some are interested in the history of a specific business, often a brewery grown to great size: Guinness has formed the subject of several studies.

Brewing history is also part of the history of taxation. It is part of social history, the habits and mores of those who produced, distributed, consumed beer. This can touch areas such as liquor control and regulation of distribution, particularly retailing.

Finally, some look at history primarily to understand what beer tasted like in a past age, or at least what choices and qualities were on the market. This aspect of it partakes of “food history”, a maturing academic discipline. It combines expertise from numerous fields such as history, ethnology, sociology, and various sciences including the history of science. Beverage history is a subset of food history. It is, as the set, still a field where the committed amateur can range free and often make contributions of interest and importance.

In a previous time, the work of non-academics in the field was mildly dismissed (by academe) in the form of the innocent-sounding term, antiquarianism. Still, very useful contributions have been made to beer and brewing studies by “antiquarians” past and present. I believe – I’m an antiquarian – that the first reference to porter, in a 1721 letter in Terrae-Filius (1721-1726) by Nicholas Amherst, has currency due to attention being drawn in Notes and Queries.

I am interested in all these areas but primarily the history of palate. Some may consider this a hopeless task: malt and hops, yeasts too, have presumably changed so much we can never know what something tasted like from 100 years ago and more. I don’t agree with that. Reading extensively in archival materials, when you put enough together, can give a real sense of what beer was like, and I am convinced its basic elements have not changed.

We can glean what a “luscious” or “satiating” taste is (sweet, malty), a Bohemian bouquet (like Saaz hops in Pilsner Urquell, the same variety is grown as in mid-1800s), an “empyreumatic” taste (smoky, burned), and so on.  And period accounts of hop amounts, final gravities in beers, and other technical data can give a sense of taste by comparing to modern beers of similar characteristics.

The best Bohemian-style or golden lagers of the great American breweries of c. 1900 were probably much closer to modern Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar/Czechvar than the surviving beers today. (What sold well in a former time may not do well now, or may appeal only to a small number. The more I read of practices in the past, the less likely I am to be judgmental. It is more interesting to know how something was made in a particular era, and why, and compare it to other eras).

Thus, most beer “markers” of the 1800s are, I believe, in existence today: the cereal flavour of malted barley or other grains; the bitter and aromatic taste of hops; the bready/fruity taste of brewer’s yeast; and the pungent notes of wild yeast (Brettanomyces). So again by looking at period recipes and technical data we can understand what their beer was like. Changes in malts and hops will occur but they also occur seasonally even for the same varieties, so changes in such materials even over long periods can be exaggerated.

Consider too that differences between, say, the grapefruit tang of Cascade or Citra hops vs. the milder, arbour-like English Fuggles elude many, probably most people. It’s all “beer” to the great majority. The beer of the 1800s similarly would have been recognizable as part of the genus.

But can we identify a taste that has disappeared from beer? Not in the sense of a now disused hop or yeast, but a taste not manifest even in variant form? There is one, a trait often commented on in literature of the day. It was the “pitch” taste in lager beer, especially blond lager where it would have been most manifest.

This practice was brought to the new world by immigrant brewers. Germans in particular coated the interior of casks with hot pitch, the resin extracted from the sap of pine and other fir trees. George Ehret, the prominent New York brewer who in 1891 wrote a history of American brewing, described two purposes for the pitching. The first was to ensure proper cleaning of the cask before reuse. The second was to avoid the “taste of the wood”. The cleaning reference is compressed. He meant, as other writers made clear, that beer was more likely to sour from micro-organisms in the wood unless the barrier of pitch minimized this risk.

In an era when wood vessels were commonly used in different brewing applications, this problem was omnipresent. It is why A-B was advertising by the early 1900s that its beers were fermented and stored in glass-lined enamelled tanks. But retailing the beer involved still using wood casks, and pitching them was a very frequent practice.

George Ehert’s comment on the need to avoid a taste from the wood echoes similar remarks of British brewers in the same period. American oak barrels imparted, and still do, a taste that was described as “cocoanut”. It’s the vanillin/smoky taste familiar to anyone who likes California chardonnay, or bourbon. In contrast to this view, the taste is welcomed by the current generation of beer fans. Barrel-aged Imperial stout usually exhibits it, but so do many other styles of beer which receive barrel-aging.

Brewers of c. 1900 generally did not want the taste, with an exception noted below. European oak from Britain and East Europe was much more neutral on beer and wine. Pitched or not, their beer didn’t taste like Chard or Jack Daniel’s.

In a 1906 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, F.F. Haldane wrote that all Irish porter brewers and the leading English ones used (un-pitched) American oak, so this is an exception to be noted. In a sense it is a predecessor of the current fashion for barrel-aged Imperial stout. Haldane said the tannins of American and Canadian oak suited porter but not ale, see his discussion here.

His explanation is somewhat contradictory as he suggests the taste of American oak suits porter and stout yet in a test done to compare the difference in flavour of porter stored in American oak vs. Memel wood (a classic East European type then used), no difference in taste could be detected. Well, which is it? I’d infer the taste of porter then was so strong from roasted malts, the high hopping and perhaps some Brett effect that the American taste didn’t obtrude. In any case, for pale ale, and a fortiori pale lager, American wood wasn’t wanted.

The taste of the pitch was another story. Below, I attach a page from an American military publication of 1899, it was part of what we would call today an advertorial. It was about Budweiser, and is in part an early taste description. The beer was called “vinous”, a term often used in the day to describe golden lager, and meaning on the dry side, bitter, and perhaps slightly acidic (as acidity levels were higher then than now). The ad also refers to a “mild pitchy bouquet”, the first time I’ve seen this reference to Budweiser.

Readers will recall that early court cases I’ve discussed for the Budweiser trade mark refer to pitch being imported from Bohemia to line A-B’s casks. Presumably the characteristics of Bohemian pitch were liked and its contribution to flavour wanted, no doubt an acquired taste but all tastes are in beverages. I think I can recall the taste in Pilsner Urquell from the 1970s and 80s, when the brewery still used pitched wood vessels to store the lager. It was a slightly musty taste but pleasant. Today it is absent from the beer since no wood is used in its production now.

George Ehret stated in the book mentioned above that the taste of the brewer’s pitched was “highly prized”. This dimension of lager flavour is completely lost. What lager today is stored in or served from pitched casks? Can you name one? There may be the odd one in Bavaria or in Czech Republic. There is none I’m aware of in North America, or Britain. When the idea to age beer in barrels occurred to brewers here, they just took the raw wood, or ex-bourbon or wine barrels – not so far from the virgin cask – and ran with it.

Nothing wrong with that – the relativity of taste – but an enterprising brewer reading might consider pitching wood barrels to get a more authentic, at least period, palate for 1800s Central European/American lager.

You can buy pitch made from pine, it’s used in the construction of patio decks, in maintaining the wood frame of boats, and similar applications. Hardware and home supply stores sell it.

It’s the next style, everyone: pitched lager.

Pitched lager.

Note re images: The images below are sourced from the HathiTrust digital library to which I’ve often referred in these pages. All intellectual property to or in the images shown herein belong solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable  Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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3 thoughts on “Pitched Lager

  1. What a concept! I never gave a thought to pitch affecting the flavor of beers past, but it certainly makes sense. I guess I’m too far removed from the era in which that practice was a necessary part of the brewing process.

    This begs another question: as natural pitch gave way to synthetic (Mammut Kappa et al) did the pitch taste change or simply vanish? It would seem from old ads that Kappa was flavor-neutral, so even though “pitching” continued it no longer affected flavor, and this would probably have occurred before the advent of Prohibition.

    The pitch taste most likely vanished in the U.S. shortly after the turn of the last century then. The Mammut ad proudly proclaims that, “To use ‘Kappa’ means to do away with chipped pitch or pitch taste in beer,” as if that were a desirable outcome. Great food for thought!

    https://books.google.com/books?id=udFOAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA87&lpg=RA1-PA87&dq=mammut+tank+pitch&source=bl&ots=qcQgb3Xbu5&sig=vCURGb2g878pTA1QvrCOGLUpjBo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiRrMC_obrQAhUL-GMKHV9ABl8Q6AEIKjAD#v=onepage&q&f=false

    • Thanks Sam. You have been very good to comment here (I’ve had virtually no comments from any of the beer community, one of the great surprises of entering blogging, but there it is).

      Mammut was a form of pitch, Ballantine used it for the storage vats, but whether it imparted some taste I can’t say. I think you are probably right it made little contribution if any. As time went on, brewing science increasingly wanted to rub out these old flavours.

      Once A-B went from wood lagering vessels to enamelled glass, some brewers used cement-lined tanks or other non-wood (today stainless), the pitch taste would have come down quite a bit, it would have been sourced henceforth only from trade casks. And once trade casks became metal (1950s generally), that ended it.

      I wonder if the science guys rationalized the pitch taste as non-desireable once they decided wood had to go no doubt for the main reason to ensure no bacterial or other threat from wood impossible to santitize 100%.

      So often, what is a desideratum commerically becomes a palate plus, one might say. Since the British never used pitch (or very little, there was some minor use), they never had to claim it was a desireable trait of the beer. And didn’t have to “backtrack” when pitch went into disuse.

      On the other hand, all flavours are really arbitrary, so it doesn’t really matter… 🙂

      Gary

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