Pining for an Old-time Brew

Franz Schwackhofer was a Vienna-born professor of chemical technology. He specialized in the subjects of malting and brewing and was active in the later 19th century. The LinkFang site offers a biographical sketch, in German, see here.

In 1894 Schwackhofer wrote an extensive study of the American brewing industry, Amerikanische Brau-Industrie auf der Weltaussellung in Chicago. It is catalogued in HathiTrust but not available in full view. In effect, it is a full-length book, with 60 folded-in plates that surely would be most interesting to view. Some chapters were co-authored with another writer.

A good summary of this work is contained in a book review that appeared in 1896 in vol. 62 of the British journal Engineering. It is a careful, detailed account of the book that relates Schwackhofer’s views on the progress of American brewing, with which he was generally impressed. Malting, grain and corn types, filtration, bottling, and much more are covered.

So widespread was the use of corn in American brewing by the 1890s that Schwackhofer states other beer was now the specialty, meaning the all-barley malt beer that still had writ in Continental Europe.

The review recounts that American wood kegs were usually lined with pitch but sometimes with lacquer. Pitch was prepared from the sap of coniferous trees. A brief description from an American brewing chemist’s paper in 1942 explains the properties of good pitch, one of which is that it impart no odour to beer.

Beer casks were lined to keep out a woody taste in the beer and prevent microorganisms in the wood frame from souring the beer. Wood vessels were widely treated with pitch in Continental Europe as well, for this reason. The taste of pitch nonetheless by some accounts circa 1900 entered the beer, and was considered part of its “profile”, we would say today.

Brewers from Central Europe brought the cask-pitching tradition here. There is the odd remark in brewing literature in America as well of a taste in the beer from pitch. An 1899 Budweiser ad I mentioned earlier vaunted, in fact, its “pitchy” taste. See my discussion, here.

The review in Engineering, summarizing Schwackhofer, wrote that where American brewers used lacquer in lieu of pitch:

… a little spruce pitch is dropped into the wort for the benefit of customers who are unhappy without that by-product.

This almost incidental remark reveals to us that American beer had, or very frequently had given the scope of Schwakhofer’s brewery tour (see review), a piney tang.

A pine taste has sometimes been assumed by those projecting how American beer might have tasted then, but no one is really sure because later, as we see from the 1942 commentary, it was thought the pitch should be neutral on the beer. Evidently technology caught up by the mid-century to the properties of lacquer, an inert finish made from shellac dissolved in alcohol.

For guidance on lacquer practice in the 1890s, this 1898 article in American Brewers’ Review is helpful. It is called varnish here but the same thing is meant.

Off-piste additions to a food product like beer – outside that is malt, hops, corn, rice, sugar – were not trumpeted at the time. Yet through a side-wind we gain an insight on a key attribute of the beer palate in the Gibson Girl era.

Today, an endless variety of ingredients is added to beer. I’m sure pine or spruce is, of occasion, but I can’t recall the last ones I had. Brewers hark.

N.B. I wrote up Quebec spruce beer in this early post – a true survival of nineteenth century Canadian tastes. It is still made, I must look for it when in Montreal soon. If I get a bottle and pour a dash in a good craft lager, ergo I’ve made an 1890s American lager – maybe. The specialty kind Dr. Schwackhofer wrote of. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Pining for an Old-time Brew”

  1. For those who want to taste pine pitch, try a glass of Greek retsina. Originally, pitch was used to keep ceramic amphoras from leaking.


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