I came across an interesting bit of beer lore today. Apparently the saying “Mind your Ps and Qs” is derived from an accounting method used by English tavernkeepers during the 1700s. To keep track of each customer’s tab, the keeper would record their orders on a slate with the letters P and Q at the top. The P was for Pints and the Q for Quarts. When it came time to pay, customers had to mind their Ps and Qs or face being overcharged by an unscrupulous tavernkeeper! From Phillips, Glen C. On Tap: The Odyssey of Beer and Brewing in Victorian London-Middlesex.
When I first began researching the history of brewing, I kept coming across references to “pitched barrels” and “brewers’ pitch.” I had no idea what they were referring to! Was it some type of finings to clarify the brew? A special type of flavouring that went in barrels? It was all a bit of a mystery until I stumbled upon Julius Thausing’s book The Theory and Practice of the Preparation of the Malt and the Fabrication of Beer. In great detail he explains that brewers’ pitch is in fact tree pitch used to coat the insides of barrels, primarily barrels used to transport beer from one location to another. Barrel pitch was obtained from Conifera trees; larches, firs, pitch pines, etc. To obtain pitch, either the bark of the tree was peeled off, or incisions were cut into the tree. The resin was collected and boiled and constantly skimmed to remove the oil of turpentine that collected on the surface of the vat. The clean pitch was drawn off and sold as brewers’ pitch.
Thausing’s instructions on how to pitch a barrel – “The bung and plug having been driven in, the barrel is “knocked up,” i.e., the head hoop and first hoop are taken off, and the belly hoop is loosened if necessary; the head is then taken out… The barrel which is to be pitched must be dry; if necessary, a bundle of straw is burned in it for the purpose of completely drying it… The pitch is brought to the boiling point in an open boiler of sheet-iron or copper, which is bricked in over a furnace. The barrel is laid obliquely against a block of wood, the open side being somewhat raised, the necessary quantity of pitch is poured into it with a ladle, and thus is ignited by a red-hot iron. The head which has been taken out is turned towards the barrel, so that only sufficient air can enter for keeping up the burning, and the smoke can pass out. The pitch should burn briskly, because if the
smoke is not carried off well the beer will afterwards acquire a disagreeable, smoky taste…After a few minutes, the head is pressed tightly against it to extinguish the fire, the pitch is scraped out of the grooves of the chime, the head is quickly put in, the hoops are driven up, the barrel is turned over several times to distribute the pitch uniformly, and finally the plug is knocked out to allow the air and smoke to escape. The barrel must then be rolled for some time until the pitch has become cold, and then the bung is also taken out.”
By the early 1880s when Thausing wrote his book, pitching machines that used steam to melt the pitch and roll the barrels had become quite common in commercial breweries. Other than the obvious advantage of a reduction in labour, the machines also had the benefit of being able to pitch the barrels without having to take them apart. This saved considerable wear and tear on the barrels and reduced the amount of pitch needed per barrel. Thausing calculated that one kilogram of pitch per hectoliter (26.4 gallons) was sufficient to coat the inside of a new barrel.
In the next post – another largely extinct method of barrel preparation – sulphuring!
Beginning Saturday, June 19th and running through Saturday, June 25th, Black Creek Historic Brewery will be participating in Ontario Craft Beer Week! Celebrating Ontario’s small and independent breweries, the Ontario Craft Brewers association will be featuring special events at member breweries and partner restaurants throughout the province.
In celebration, the Black Creek Historic Brewery will be running the Field to Firkin tour twice daily through the week at 12:30 and 3:00 and three times daily on June 19th and 20th, at 12:30, 1:45 and 3:45.
For more information about the Ontario Craft Brewers check out www.ontariocraftbrewers.com or join their facebook page!
Ed Koren, our Brewer, gave me a shout today to let me know that he brewed a batch of Honey Brown Ale this past weekend, and that it will be ready for sampling and sale by the end of the week! He used 2.5kgs of honey (10% of the fermentables) in the brew. As honey is highly fermentable (up to 95%) there is only a bit of residual sweetness in the finished product. Stop by and try the new brew!
Black Creek Historic Brewery welcomes you to enjoy an Evening of Field to Firkin on Friday June 4th, 2010. Beginning at 7:00 pm, join us for a colourful tour led by our costumed beer expert, enjoy samples from our casks and end the night with a refreshing pint of ale on us. As you tour the Brewery and the grounds of Black Creek Pioneer Village, prepare to be transported back in time as you learn about the history of beer and the many colourful characters involved in brewing in Victorian Ontario. The program cost is $15 (+tax) and space is limited, so please call 416-667-6284 for more information and to reserve your spot!
At Black Creek we have a little cooperage building located next to our Mill. Primarily charged with coopering barrels to hold flour, it’s likely our brewery would have had to find a more specialized wet cooper to build it’s barrels. Coopering beer casks was one of the most difficult tasks a cooper faced. The interior of the barrels had to be absolutely smooth to make sterilization easier and to prevent bacteria from growing and contaminating the beer. Oak was the favoured timber as it is strong enough to withstand the pressure of the fermenting beer. In the 19th century, most casks were pompeyed, that is charred inside to seal the grain of the wood and allow the beer to mature more effectively. Many coopers went one step further and coated the inside of their beer casks with coal or tar pitch to simplify cleaning and assure that no liquid or air could get in or out (more on pitching in a later post)! With the advent of steam power, the chore of washing and sterilizing the casks between brews was simplified. The exhaust steam from the engine was reused to heat water to wash and sterilize the casks. They were then quickly moved to the fermenting room where they were filled and bunged before bacteria from the air had a chance to take root in the clean casks.
Black Creek Historic Brewery uses a set of eight oak casks that need to be emptied and completely sterilized after each use. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it for the flavor that ageing in wood provides the beer. It is also interesting to note, that unlike steel casks, the temperature inside the bunged barrels stays remarkably steady, despite changes in the room temperature.
In the next post – Pitching that doesn’t involve a ball…