Textiles, Threads, London Beer

When I spoke at Castro’s Lounge on the weekend, I was asked to give a simple example of threads and porter in a textiles context.

In The Art of Weaving, by Hand and by Power (1844) by Clinton G. Gilroy (image below via HathiTrust), we see a discussion of striped cloth where thread is used in relation to porter (aka portee, portie, portee).

Here, three threads per dent (also called split) was used, presumably a typical application. For various fabrics the definition of porter could be different, e.g., for jute it was 40 threads to define the basic type (20 splits x 2), which makes sense given the looser construction of jute or burlap. Better qualities used more threads per split, e.g., tarpaulin.

But the basic principle is the same. All the threads of a porter helped form the fabric. I believe that each thread-type for mixed beers – two threads, three threads, up to six – were a porter, just as a two-thread striped cloth and three-thread striped cloth were. It was all porter, the cloths and the mixed beers. Finally the amalgamated (entire) beer was a porter too – hence the name – only it was prepared by the brewer, ready-made – the weaving was done so to speak.

Consider too that the term loom was also used at the time to describe a brewery. I documented this in earlier writings here.

Thread counts in the length were a way to grade cloth. The variables were the numbers of splits in the porter, the number of threads in the splits, and the number of porters in the reed length. Dents is from French, for teeth. It’s the idea of a gap to be filled with thread, the same for split of course. Porter as a textiles term is from the French portée, the idea of an entry or space again.

All this technology was understood in the late 1600s in Spitalfields, London, and used for all cloths. The only difference was, looming later became more automated. Silk manufacture had some particularities as well but they are not relevant to the aspect being discussed.

This is the first new theory on the origin of the names porter and three (etc.) threads for hundreds of years. I think, of course, I’m right, as further discussed in my 2015 postings referenced in my blog post yesterday.

Oh, a top grade of silk in this period was black silk, used for hoods and parts of the dress of prosperous women. That’s what a good strong porter tastes like, eh?



My Presentation on Porter and Stout at Castro’s Lounge in Toronto

“Rear View Mirror” Presentation at Castro’s Lounge, Saturday, November 26, 2016

I presented on this topic over the weekend. We had a dozen signed up, not a large number but Castro’s, a compact room, was almost full from normal trade anyway, so not many more could have been accommodated.

I started by noting that “porter” as a term for beer is first documented in a 1721 letter published in Nicholas Amherst’s Terrae Filius (1721-1726). I noted that previously, brown ale and brown beer were popular in the city, but also other beers of varying colour and strength.

I stressed that the subject of porter is complex and would deserve a book on its own, indeed a series of them examining the topic from different standpoints. I chose to focus on the points itemized below, but obviously another 20 or 40 could be added, e.g., the Harwood origin story, Obadiah Poundage’s letter of 1760, Feltham’s Picture of London account, the origin of brown malt and the oak and alder link, tax and price issues, technological innovations, the invention of black malt by Daniel Wheeler, the rise of mild ale, etc.

bottle-padrino-photo-pngThe group was comprised of about half “new hands” and the others more experienced in the beer palate with a couple knowing some good detail on beer in general. We tasted Sleeman Porter, Durham Black Katt stout, Mackeson Milk Stout, Flying Monkeys Cadillac Graveyard Oatmeal Stout, Wellington Imperial Russian Stout, Padrino Porter, and the house threw in Black Oak Nutcracker, a spiced porter.

All were from Ontario except the Mackeson, brewed in Caribbean, and Padrino (Barcelona). All were bottled or canned except the Black Katt and Nutcracker, which were non-cask draft.

Fuller Imperial Stout was on the original list, but couldn’t be sourced in time. The last two were substituted.

The part of the group not familiar with beer technics preferred the Sleeman Porter, then the Flying Monkeys or Black Katt. The others liked the Padrino a lot (I thought it was great, the best that day). The Wellington seemed a little off, with an acidic edge. This actually suited my purpose as I pointed out some 1700s-1800s porter acquired a similar “hard” edge and was often used in blending.

Chris and Craig in the group blended the Wellington with the Flying Monkeys and it was excellent!

Few enjoyed the Mackeson, but I did.

Below are the main points I addressed. I’ve lightly edited them to reflect more how the discussion actually went.

  • earlier terms for porter include porter’s ale, porter’s beer, porter’s guzzle, porter’s liquors
  • traditionally, it is thought the term comes from London porters who moved parcels and merchandise as they favoured the drink
  • “three threads” and other thread numbers preceded porter as drinks
  • “porter” aka “entire butt beer” was said to replace a blend of beers, the “threads” (thirds?)
  • Gary Gillman has advanced a completely new idea that London Huguenot silk weaving terminology explains the terms three threads and porter, by reference to cloth quality*
  • the greater the number of threads of each “porter” in the loom (aka portée, portee, portie), the higher the quality of cloth and its price
  • the higher the number of threads in the thread beers, the greater the price, as documented in 1713 at the Fortune of War, Goodman’s Field, part of London’s silk-weaving district
  • Gillman projects the weaving terms porter and thread were applied jocularly to mixed beers to label their ascending qualities by price, e.g. two threads was two pence the pot, three threads three pence
  • this is the first new thinking on porter history for 200 years
  • the term stout preceded porter, there was pale stout and brown stout
  • porter and stout are essentially the same except stout was sometimes stronger and richer
  • the thread beers and mixes may have been a way to avoid tax on strong beer, but possibly also to attain a better palate
  • with a tax crackdown, arguably entire butt/porter emerged to replace the most popular mix, three threads
  • three threads and porter were the same price for a good part of the 1700s, three pence the pot, which adds to their connection…
  • a hallmark of porter/entire was longer-age to have a balance of mature and fresh elements, but blending never disappeared and resurged at end of 1700s
  • brown malts were typically used in porter in 1700s and somewhat smoky from kilning with straw, wood, coals
  • in early 1800s, pale malt was added to mash to afford its higher extract potential
  • roasted black malt became popular, instead of or in addition to brown and amber malts, to lend the colour and roasty taste
  • palate of porter apparently changed in this period
  • early 1800s, Guinness substituted black malt for brown, but also used amber malt through 1800s, the beers were still all-malt
  • c. 1900 Guinness settled on pale malt and black malt for all beers
  • mid-1900s (dates vary) Guinness substitutes roasted barley for black malt, apparently today 40% of mash is unmalted barley
  • porter disappeared for a time in Britain but some breweries continued to make stout, which was similar
  • e.g., Mackeson stout was never off the market, it uses a lactose addition, introduced 1907
  • craft brewing has restored different varieties of porter and stout, e.g., oatmeal stout, Imperial stout, foreign export stout, Baltic porter
  • craft brewing has developed new forms of these especially flavoured with coffee and chocolate but also fruits and other things
  • some flavourings are new, some are not, but all beer was flavoured with a huge variety of things before the hop became standardized for beer
  • classic porter and stout are made with 100% barley malt and the hopping traditionally is high, in keeping with its “beer” origins versus ale
  • the beer and ale distinction largely disappeared by later 1800s but traces of the distinction subsist
  • the pint of “mild” in U.K., where still available, is less hopped than bitter and IPA and reflects the old “ale”


*My two main publications (2015) on the topic can be read here. The “keystone post” mentioned sets out the main argument, and additional points are made in the second posting linked herein.


Doctor Give Me The News

I discussed earlier that Victorian medical journals regularly mentioned (beverage) alcohol to aid treatment. Often they contain analyses of various liquors with opinions on therapeutic value, and even advertisements for beer and other alcohol. IPA was a favourite in this regard.

The idea of alcohol as a medicine is very old in Western culture and never entirely disappeared.

In a time when sulpha drugs did not exist and care was rudimentary, folk medicines still held sway in the public imagination, and alcohol was always a star performer. Physicians were not exempt, faute de mieux, perhaps.

To be sure, some of the Faculty resisted this tendency. In the U.S., Dr. Benjamin Rush was an early opponent of excessive alcohol use, especially spirits. But most doctors must have viewed alcohol indulgently, judging again by all the attention given the subject in their media.

As late as 1907, one reads encomia to whisky and beer in The Lancet. Consider the one below for an extra stout from William Dulley in Wellingborough, central England. We are told the alcohol level, 7.32% abv, the gravity, and that the beer is free from acidity. Were that not enough to guide the reader, it is helpfully added that the stout is “soft” and “very malty”.

One can be forgiven for thinking the source is a magazine for sybarites, indeed the writing sounds like a taste note from a consumer beer book…

But it reflected the times. The note in the same page on a Scotch whisky is in similar vein. The writer noted the product was all-malt (not a blended whisky), and compared the sample to a “genuine old brandy” suitable for medical purposes whose legitimacy he took took for granted. Some doctorly restraint was shown by a caution directed to the vendors to cease describing the whisky as “anti-gout and rheumatic”.

So as not to favour malt-based alcohol, the same page noticed the increased availability of South African wines – all the bases were covered.




What is left of the old idea of alcohol as medicine? Very little. The image probably survives – just – of the St. Bernard rushing to rescue lost mountaineers with keg of brandy strapped under the chin. There is a vague idea still of alcohol as a reviver, a pick-me-up, especially as a hangover cure. Apart from that, all we read of is to avoid alcohol, or limit consumption, due to its many dangers when abused.

Yet, thank of cannabis. It has made inroads in this area, in fact it occupies today the field alcohol formerly held. An idea which once seemed impertinent, “medical marijuana”, is now taken for granted in society at large and in many medical circles. Many, but not all.

Will history repeat itself and kief finally be banned from the medical bag? Time will tell.

Note re images: the two images above were sourced via HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Turn And Face The Strange …

Boak and Bailey’s current posting was kind enough to mention my recent article on pitched lager, and also drew attention to an interesting post, here, by English blogger Alec Latham. The writer explains that at 39, he feels betwixt and between in the beer scene.

He describes an incident where he really enjoyed a double IPA yet knows that such expensive and fashionable beers are often viewed as baubles by an older generation, stalwarts of fine cask bitter at a good price.


And of course he likes those beers too, so feels rather torn, as he appreciates what each generation enjoys but feels fully part of neither.

I’m a quarter-century older than he, so I get it, but even more so. I’ve seen seven or eight shifts in the beer scene here since the 70s, and doubtless there will be a few more until we depart this vale.

My counsel to the writer is, you must decide at day’s end what is good and valuable. Stick to that, and the rest is the buzz and the fashion. Sure, it can be fun but will often spell nothing of permanent value.

Recently, an old pal told me, you talk too much about old beers, meaning probably some 80s-90s craft beers, Anchor Steam beer, Pilsner Urquell, classic English beers, and other stars of the “past”. To some, the valid experiences are those of now. Similarly, some whose formative beer experiences were in the 70s or 90s have firm favourites representative of that era, and will taste nothing else.

For those whose tastes were formed, and fixed, in a previous time, the cost of the newer beers sometimes puts them off. Often too it is their strangeness, which can take in the packaging or labelling, which gives them a gimcrack impermanence.

In truth though, one never knows what will be of enduring value. Beers that seemed weird or trendy when first issued can end by being classics. Many more will be flashes in the pan, destined for recording in soon-to-be-remaindered beer books but not much else.

I feel that at its best pumpkin beer, which really is spiced ale previous eras would have appreciated (but even setting that aside) is a great addition to the beer lexicon. It doesn’t bother me many don’t agree. A similar winner is black IPA. And ditto for those who think it is an abomination.

Yet I don’t stand by most sours. For me.


The best advice is, stick to your guns and don’t apologize for what you think is good (or not so grand). You will end by being a composite of all the eras.

Where the blasts from the past are still on the market, buy them without fear or favour, that is, with a view to palate.

Obviously pocket book is important, few can afford to buy everything they want. But within your means, buy what you think offers the best taste experience. Whether the person next to you agrees with it or not is by the by.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Signbuyer website, here. All rights therein or thereto belong to the sole owner or authorized users. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Beaujolais Nouveau

Let’s Make It Nouveau Again

I remember decades ago when those interested in things bibulous would look forward to the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau. It was the young wines that appeared in late November and intended to be consumed within a couple of months or so ideally, versus the established crus of the region. (Beaujolais is one of the four wine regions in Burgundy, not the most renowned).

The history is that a vin ordinaire, or perhaps any surplus to the standard crus sent out, was sold locally and quaffed to end another wine year and the harvest past. In the mid-30s, the law was changed to allow sale of this Beaujolais wine from November 15 vs. December 15 as the general start of sales. Some was sent in barrel to Paris and Lyon and a fashion grew for it. (Today, the release date is the third Thursday of November).

img_20161124_190802_editThis facilitated the nouveau getting known and in the 60s-70s, the bottling of it and export initially to England took off.

It became a thing, the rage. While serious wine fans saw that these wines were something diverting, fun but not to be taken too seriously, the trend caught on with the wine-buying public in general.

Restaurateurs and wine bars competed to get in enough stocks to trumpet the wine to avid patrons. I remember a time when, as today for a choice whisky or beer, LCBO customers would race to the stores to find a bottle of Mommessin or Duboeuf’s nouveau.

Often you couldn’t find any, it was sold out within a day or two of being placed on the floor in cases.

In time, to take advantage of the craze, similar primeur as nouveau is also called was marketed by wine countries other than France, Italy especially, and finally even by new world wineries. There really is no substitute for the best French ones though, at least in my experience

Then the trend dropped off and today the arrival of the wine barely causes a ripple in the drinks scene here (or anywhere), a pity since the wines are as good as ever. To get a sense of the original excitement and interest, read this 1976 report on the wines in New York Magazine.

The big French shippers dominate the business for our market. This year I saw the two mentioned above and Drouhin’s, and bought one of each.

The Mommessin is really good, it has the berry taste Beaujolais usually has but also reminded me of a Morgon, the most Burgundy-like of the Beaujolais. I like it half-chilled.

This is a beer and also a whisky blog, but I drink wine once in a while and nouveau is sympa with the beer world as you drink it in generous swallows, like beer. It can’t be tasted in sips, as Dickens famously wrote of beer.



Porter and Stout in a Rearview Mirror: This Saturday in the Beaches


The porters and stouts to be tasted at the Rearview Mirror event this Saturday at Castro’s Lounge are:

1. Sleeman Porter
2. Durham Black Katt Stout on draught
3. Mackeson XXX Milk Stout
4. Flying Monkeys Cadillac Graveyard Oatmeal Stout
5. Wellington Imperial Russian Stout
6. Fuller Imperial Stout

I’ll be talking about porter and stout from an historical standpoint.

I’ve got some notes (talking points) done up, which I’ll post here after the event. The idea is not to focus obsessively on the beers  – valid as that might be in another context – but to have companionable and authentic examples to sip while I chat and interact with the group.

I wanted a balance of regular and higher-gravity beers, and something traditional to Ontario – Sleeman qualifies with its 19th century roots. Also, something that harks back to the heyday of stout in the 1800s (nos. 5-6), a milk stout (the classic Mackeson, 5% abv in our market, Caribbean-brewed), and a modern stout with a dry flavour where roasted barley or patent malt informs the taste – that’s Black Katt.

For 1700s porter, I feel no. 4 gets close both in gravity (6.5% abv approx.) and the dark brown colour and toasted but not expresso-like taste.

Nothing is flavoured*, as, i) I’m not a fan really of chocolate, coffee, chipotle, etc. stout, ii) they are not examples of the drink in its classic era.

It promises to be an enjoyable event. If you’re reading and want to have some fun and absorb some history too, Castro’s Lounge is the place, this Saturday is the day, 3:00 p.m. is the time.

* The Fuller has some dried rosebud added but its effect is hardly detectable.

American Beer Gravities, 1904


In 1904 analyses were made of some American lager beers. Not less than three samples of Budweiser were tested. The table above appeared in at least two publications in the mid-1910s, a time of increasing interest in food and beverage composition, and the era too when the first pure food legislation was enacted.

The final gravities were between 1010 and 1019, with most at middle or higher end. Coors was 1019, four points higher than Pilsner Urquell is today acciding to this BT source if some years ago, and I’d guess the number hasn’t changed.

Those are rich beers, albeit made with some rice or corn, and would have been hopped much more than today as well.

At the lower end of the range the beers might resemble quite a few available today in body, say Heineken, or some craft beers.

The American Adjunct Lager range today though is rather lower than in 1904, more like 1004-1010, see e.g., BJCP’s current guide. The 1904 range is similar to BJCP’s range for Czech premium pale lager if not indeed higher in some cases.

Budweiser was 1015 FG (rounding) for the three samples. However, the first sample, from January 1904, was 3% abw (3.8% abv) – more or less a full point lower than the next two, collected in March. The starting gravity for the first one therefore had to be different than the second two, by eight to 10 points I’d estimate.

Earlier, I discussed the gravities of Budweiser in 1884 and 1893, see here. In 1884 the gravity was 1015 again and the ABV was 5.3%, as essentially for the latter two samples of 1904.

In 1893 the beer was under 4% abv with an FG of 1020 by my calculation, not 1010 as asserted in Augustus Busch’s letter there discussed.

It is hard to know if these variations were intentional. Earlier I thought perhaps A-B changed the ABV from an average 5% to 4% between 1884 and 1893. In a 1904 news ad, it advertised to the public too that its beer was “3.89%”. Almost certainly this meant ABV, see my previous post, and is thus consistent with sample no. 1 above.

Perhaps draft vs. bottled was a factor, or the requirements of the local area of sale. More likely, perhaps, it was not possible at the time to establish consistently accurate starting gravities. In some cases perhaps the yeast did not perform to the desired attenuation, maybe this explains the results of the Budweiser in Busch’s 1893 letter.

Many of these beers had a Saaz or other imported hop characteristic and signature. With a rich, well-hopped body they must have tasted like Pilsner Urquell again or perhaps Sam Adams Boston Lager if not indeed richer than these latter, factoring though some taste of or connected to the rice or corn used.





Pitch Perfect

Pfaudler, an American company founded in 1884 in Rochester, NY, is now owned by a German private equity investment firm. Pfaudler introduced its steel, glass-lined storage tanks at the end of the 1800s. Pfaudler is still very active, you see here a snapshot provided by Bloomberg. It provides process solutions (equipment, services) in many areas for the chemical and pharma industries. It still designs and supplies the glass-lined tanks which made its initial fame.

By 1906, Anheuser-Busch invested in them big time, and did away with pitched wood tanks. In that year, A-B ran a series of ads in different regions advertising the new technology. A group of them is here, the short news account (advertorial) is illuminating.  These ads claimed 4-5 months aging in this period, and the beer touched no wood from brew kettles to bottling, from “kettle to lip” it was processed in glass, notably the fermentation and aging stages.

Changes such as this hastened the demise of the pitch taste in beer. Still, some of it remained in draft beer as wood barrels were still used to send beer to bars. In this regard, an interesting dichotomy must have opened between bottled and draft beer. Budweiser was initially a bottled beer. It was later supplied on draft as well. When storage vessels were pitch-lined, some of the flavour must have entered all forms of the beer. Hence the claim in 1899 of a “mild pitchy bouquet” for (clearly) the bottled beer I discussed yesterday.

But beer bottled from the new glass tanks would not have featured the taste. It makes sense to me that from about 1906, an attempt would have been made to keep the pitch flavour in trade casks to a minimum. This would keep the flavour of the draft and bottled beer closer. (Another difference was that draft beer then in America was unpasteurized; today draft Budweiser from AB-InBev in Canada anyway is flash-pasteurized).

This march of technology perhaps explains the numerous references in mid-20th century literature on pitch having no or very little taste. What was viewed in Pilsen – where golden lager originated –  as a contributor to the palate c. 1900 was not wanted later when the bottled beer showed no pitch aroma.

Edward Vogel’s brewing manual of 1946, as did earlier brewing texts of the 1900s, stressed that pitch should be neutral on beer. English brewing scientist Lloyd Hind, writing some years earlier, stated the same thing for pitch and various enamels such as Mammut, I cited the reference in a comment to yesterday’s post.

Some lager producers may still have used a pitch for trade casks which produced a definable odour. This was surely part of the pre-consolidation era variety in North American brewing.  But once metal barrels came in use by all brewers (latest 1950s), even this residual distinction in process would have disappeared.

The extract below is from Vogel’s book mentioned above.




The Arc Of The Pitch

09_04_000976Julius Thausig’s brewing text (1882) contains a detailed explanation of pitching barrels: why it’s done; how the pitch is made; how it is applied. Start at pp 559, see here. Thausig was a German and the work was translated into English for an American audience. Hence, his explanation can be taken as explaining contemporary European practice.

He gives a rundown of different tree sources in various regions of Europe, but also mentions North Carolina pine as a prime source for brewers’ resin. If I’m not mistaken, the last supplies of pitch used in Pilsen, before the practice was eliminated, came from the United States. So the reference to America in a European text is not unusual (unless possibly the translators or editor added it).

What did the pitch smell like? He answers that, too. He states 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 experienced tasters, at least in Europe.

A number of British reports at the end of the 19th century, and beginning in the next, mention it. This 1910 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing cited the “characteristic fine bitter taste that freshly applied pitch gives to beers”.

Testifying 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 casks) after coating them with hot pitch to ensure the fumes and resins would impart a strong flavour to the wood and thus to the beer.

Liebmann explained that in America, while pitch was used in operations, the casks were rinsed after the treatment to reduce the pitch odour. This may explain why Budweiser, as I mentioned yesterday, advertised a “mild pitch bouquet” then. No doubt practices 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 heavy use of Sazz hops, pitch was clearly a main reason for the distinctive taste of Pilsner beer. Over 80 years later, Pilsner Urquell 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 series of the same era shows the procedure, a drama of large smoking tuns rolled and tumbled to set the resin.

Some time later, however, wood lagering and pitching were 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 procedures as well, particularly as regards yeast types and fermentation.

One way to look at the history is, American brewers adopted the pitched vessels of Europe, but ensured the taste was more subtle in comparison to the homelands. In an incremental change, the move in particular away from wooden 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 range of flavours in modern lager, ale, and 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.


Pitched Lager


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.