Julius 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.