Taste Is Relative, But Diverting


As we see in this 1909 article from American Brewers Review, detailed instructions were given how to avoid the “pitch taste” in beer. It was said, “The prevention of ‘pitch taste’ has always been a matter of vital importance to the beer Brewer”.

Yet as I explained recently, until then a faint taste of pitch was considered part of the profile of lager. American beer writers, including the New York brewer George Ehrets, mentioned this trait in books before 1900. And only 10 years earlier, Budweiser was advertised as having a “pitchy bouquet”.

Which is it?

Contradiction, and making a virtue of necessity, characterize human endeavour in general, and not least brewing, where the prime and overriding factor has always been delivery of a weak alcoholic solution to the public. National Prohibition proved this starkly when near beer became a damp squib…

In an era when large wood vats were used to age the beer for months, and these were lined with pitch, some of the taste got into the beer, even bottled beer, where pitch-lined trade casks were not used. For draft beer, the effect had to be more marked.

Once Pfaudler tanks lined with glass were substituted by the larger brewers at any rate, the pitch taste went away at least for bottled beer and was reduced in draft beer. Indeed we have seen that Anheuser-Busch advertised the Pfaudler tanks at virtually the same time as the article above appeared. I doubt the two things were coincidental.

(The glass enamelled tanks were substituted not to rid the beer of the pitch flavour but to render it more stable, less likely to sour for example from hard-to-excise microflora resident in the wood of the older tanks).

Hence articles such as these. All the old lore of the “incense” smell of pitch, of the romantic odours of Bohemian towns and how they infused the finished product, went out the window.

In my view, differing commercial rationales explained the virtues of corn and rice in brewing, of pasteurization, of short lagering, finally of reduced hop content. It’s not really any different today. Do the very pronounced tastes of U.S. hops have any inherent value? Not really. Indeed some of them were rejected by European brewers just for that reason, yet today they are the acme of terroir.

Is heavy gravity brewing a bad thing, or Nathan conical fermenters viz. their effect on top-fermenting  yeast? No, it is what it is and we attribute value to the results, provided it is beer.

This is normal as taste is relative if not almost arbitrary. We like a heavy and bitter-sweet beer because we want to, not because it is inherently superior to a light and almost tasteless one. At one time, and still for many, it is precisely the obverse.

Creating a detailed classification of tastes is an economically useful and often absorbing endeavour, but ultimately an unnecessary one. Perhaps the Russians were the most honest in that when it became possible to produce virtually tasteless alcohol as drink, they did precisely that, in the form of vodka.

Did the advice in the 1909 article work? I doubt it. A road made of tar always has a faint smell of the material, particularly on a warm day. It can’t have been much different for a barrel of beer. I am quite sure I remember the pitch taste in Pilsner Urquell in the 70s and 80s, lightly musky as I recall it.

Now that I think about it, incense can smell like that. It would be great to see it again, because it is interesting – that’s reason enough. Craft brewers are the perfect people to do it.

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