Julius Thausig’s brewing text contained a detailed explanation of pitching barrels: why it’s done; how the pitch is made; how it is applied. Start at pp 559, here. Thausig was a German and the work was translated for an American audience. Thus, his explanation can be taken to explain contemporary European practice.
He gives a rundown of different tree sources in various regions of Europe, but also mentions North Carolina pines as a prime source for brewer’s resin. If I’m not mistaken, the last supplies for pitch used in Pilsen, before the practice was eliminated, came from the U.S. So the reference to the U.S. in a European book is not unusual (unless possibly the translators or editor added it).
What did the pitch smell like? He answers that too. He says it is a pleasant smell, like “incense”. Contemporary American reports indicate that the taste should be in the background, but clearly it was noticed by tasters not familiar with the style, at least in Europe.
A number of British reports at end of the 19th century, and beginning of the next, mention it. This 1910 article in Journal of the Institute of Brewing cited the “characteristic fine bitter taste that freshly applied pitch gives to beers”.
Testifying to how this taste was imparted, Julius Liebmann, head of the brewery in New York famed for Rheingold beer, explained in Transactions of the American Brewing Institute of 1901-1902 that the brewers in Pilsen bunged the vessels (certainly storage and trade cask) after coating them with hot pitch to ensure the fumes and resins would impart strong pitch flavour to the wood and thus the beer.
Liebmann explained that in America, while pitch was used in operations, the casks were rinsed after the treatment to reduce the effect of the pitch odour. This may explain why Budweiser, as I mentioned yesterday, had a “mild pitch bouquet” then. No doubt practice varied among U.S. brewers, but it seems a reasonable conclusion that their marquee brands were not as distinctive in taste as Pilsner Urquell – or possibly the contemporary Budweis beers – for this reason.
Liebmann notes how Pilsen the town was suffused in the odours of Saaz hops and brewer’s pitch…
Thus, apart from the local heavy use of Sazz hops, the pitch was the main reason for the distinctive taste of Pilsner beer. Over 80 years later, Pilsen was still using pitch to coat at least the storage vats, which were re-pitched after each 80 day cycle of aging. A 1986 story in the New Scientist related the practice and quoted brewery representatives that the pitch and the wood itself conferred a special character. Michael Jackson’s televised Beerhunter video series of the same era shows the procedure, a drama of large smoking tuns being rolled and tumbled to set the resin.
Some time later however, the use of wood lagering and pitching was discontinued for Pilsner Urquell. It’s still a great drink, but whether it tastes quite as before is open to question. Some other changes were made to brewing procedure as well, particularly in regard to yeasting.
One way to look at the history is, American lager brewers adopted the pitched vessel method of Europe, but ensured the taste was subtle in comparison to the brewing homelands. In an incremental change – the move in particular from wooden lager vessels to enamelled glass (or other non-wood) containers, and finally from wood casks to metal casks – the flavour was eliminated.
The same thing happened finally in Europe.
Craft brewing has introduced a riot of flavours in modern lager, ale, porter. Everything from tea to thyme. It’s time to bring back the pitch taste, whose authenticity is just an added bonus.
Note re images: The second image herein, from the text linked above, is from the HathiTrust digital library to which I’ve often referred in these pages. The first image is from the DPLA digital resource, (see here), a 1928 American drawing, Pitch Pines, by Charles Woodbury. All intellectual property to or in the images belong solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.