Pining for an Old-time Brew

Franz Schwackhofer was a Vienna-born professor of chemical technology. He specialized in studying 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 at HathiTrust but not available 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.

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

So widespread was corn in American brewing by this time that Schwackhofer noted “other beer” is now the specialty, meaning the all-barley malt beer familiar 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 no odour is imparted to the beer.

American beer casks were lined to prevent a woody taste in the beer and preclude microorganisms in the wood 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, indeed 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 of America as well of a taste imparted by the pitch. An 1899 Budweiser ad I mentioned earlier vaunted, indeed, its “pitchy” taste. See my discussion, here.

The book 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 comment reveals 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 was really sure because later, as we see in the 1942 commentary, it was thought pitch should be neutral on the beer. Evidently technology caught up by the mid-century to lacquer, an inert finish made from shellac dissolved in alcohol.

For guidance on lacquer use in the 1890s, this 1898 article in American Brewers’ Review is helpful. The term varnish is used but the same thing is meant.

Off-piste additions to a food product like beer – outside that is malt, hops, corn, rice, or sugar – were not trumpeted at the time. Yet, through a side-wind we gain an insight into an attribute of beer 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 one form of 1890s American lager, maybe. 🙂


*Pine, spruce, and indeed fir are separate species but the resins have a similar character. Non-brewing nostrums, health-related for example, often specify these interchangeably.


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.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: