History Byte – Barrel Pitching

Barrel Pitching Machine designed for both hand and steam power. Circa 1882.

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.

Rolling Machine for Large Casks, circa 1882

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.”

Hoffmann's Barrel Rolling Machine, circa 1882

 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!


14 thoughts on “History Byte – Barrel Pitching

    1. Hello Peter,
      Unfortunately, I don’t have a source of barrel pitch as I understand that pitching barrels went out of fashion around the turn of the century. Steam cleaning negated the need to pitch barrels to simplify the cleaning process, which is essentially the purpose of pitching barrels. There are pine pitches available on the market, generally for use in making pine tar soap and for the ship building industry, but I personally wouldn’t recommend using any kind of pitch in a vessel that you intend to brew and consume beer from. Commerically prepared Pine pitch has the potential to contain many hazardous chemicals that are used to stabilize the mixture. If you’re looking to brew in a wooden cask and are concerned about bacteria infecting the wood, consider using a barrel blaster, or one of the many brewers’ chemicals designed to disinfect and kill bacteria between batches. If you’re using a wine barrel and are having issues with seepage, or lack of carbonation, you can always put a tray underneath and use bottle conditioning to carbonate your beer. Hope that helps!

      1. Karell,
        The brewers at Pilsner Urquell have been pitching their barrels for hundreds of years and for what I believe, still do. I just found this out thanks to a Michael Jackson video, “The Bohemian Connection.” It’s pretty fascinating stuff, but i’m sure they might be using a different kind of pitch then pine pitch and for all I know they make the pitch themselves as well.

      2. Hi Michael, thanks for the comment, I’ll watch the video you mention (google it you can watch it on you tube for those who are interested). I came across Pilsner Urquell out of the Czech a while back and they do something similiar to Black Creek. They mass produce their commercial beer in modern brewing equipment, and offer visitor’s to their site the opportunity to sample beer brewed in historic equipment as part of their tour and museum. Thanks for the great comment! To check out Pilsner Urquell’s site click here

    1. What a fantastic link Brian! We might just have to give it a shot at Black Creek. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  1. This is great! I am pursuing using oak for several of my brewery vessels and have also discovered Jas Townsend…I have about 5 pounds of their brewers pitch and am obtaining the last bit of equipment necessary to pitch a barrel (I’m going to convert an oak barrel into a mash tun and am using the pitch to seal the inside as well as to keep it from drying out). Keep the brewing history flowing!

    1. Hey Paul, keep us updated on how the process goes! Are you planning on manually turning the barrel while you’re pitching it or have you got another idea up your sleeve?

    1. I doubt many of them survived the call for scrap metal during WWII. By that point almost all the breweries had switched to steel or aluminum kegs eliminating the need to pitch or roll barrels. While the wine and spirit industry still uses wooden barrels, they want interaction between their product and the wood of the barrels so they don’t pitch the insides. Make sure you have a couple of strong armed friends and a good pair of heat-resistant gloves if you’re going to give this a shot!

      1. Well, I finally got around to melting pitch and adding it to a half-barrel…it didn’t work out as planned! All the stuff I read (including your history byte) said I’d have quite a bit of time to work the liquid around, but that wasn’t the case at all. As soon as it hit the barrel, the pitch started to solidify. I was planning on rolling the barrel around to distribute the stuff, but it was a no-go. I didn’t have a very good way to heat the barrel up before pitching, so that was part of it, and perhaps the ambient air temperature was just too cold? The next time I’m going to apply it like paint…with a brush. That way I can control how thick the pitch goes on. It was impossible to work once it started hardening, but a very cool learning experience.

      2. That’s really cool. It’s possible that the brewers pitch today is more or less refined, and thus of a different viscosity. It’s also possible that one of the steps in the machine pitching of barrels was heating the wood of the barrel. I’d have to do a bit more research to be sure. There is an interesting discussion in the 1873 record of Chicago legal news regarding a dispute over a patent for a new method of pitching barrels. It talks about the application of heat after the barrels have been pitched to spread the pitch around and melt it into the cracks and porse of the wood. You can check out the discussion on google books on pg 388

  2. Very interesting thread and thanks for all the research! I added a chunk of Jas Townsends pitch to my last batch of lager 3 weeks ago and it adds a very interesting flavour similar to incense. It compliments the hops, in fact pine pitch contains beta-pinene which is also in hops. Great site! glad I found it.

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