History Byte – Coopering Tools Part 1

In response to S’s question a while back, I’m doing a few posts on the tools used in heritage coopering. 

Froe and Hatchet

Many of these tools are still used in modern cooperages, though the process is more mechanized.  We’ll look at tools in the general order in which they were used.  First, the cooper would select a length of tree trunk (usually oak) and quarter and square it in preparation to cut staves.   Then, using a Froe, the cooper would split staves. 

Shaving Horse

There are references to cooper’s froes that are curved, but we have a straight froe in our cooperage.  Once split, the ends of the staves were tapered off with an axe.  The stave was then set into a shaving horse to hold the work tight. 

The outside  of the stave was then rounded with a ‘Backing Knife’. 

'Backing' or Cooper's Draw Knife

Once the cooper had the outside of the stave properly shaped, the inside of the stave was hollowed with a ‘Hollow Knife’ to achieve a uniform thickness.  The edges of the stave are then planed to the correct angle so the staves will fit snugly together.  The shape of the beer cask is

Hollowing Knife

important.  The bulge (which is more pronounced in beer casks than in casks built to hold wine or spirits) is the casks source of strength.  When the staves are locked in place by the iron hoops, they act like the stones of an archway, each exerting equal pressure on the next to strengthen the whole.  The next post will be on the tools used to assemble the staves and hoop them together.

Coopering, The Modern Way

Taylor Cooperage c. 1850 Paris, Ontario. Moved to Black Creek Pioneer Village

In response to a question poised by S. on one of my previous posts about coopering beer barrels, I’m going to briefly talk about modern coopering.  I am no means an expert on coopering, but for those that are interested, here we go!

Wooden beer barrels are rarely made today as they have been replaced by steel and aluminum barrels in most commercial breweries.  The vast majority of wooden barrels are made for the wine and spirit industry.  Wine and spirits rely on interaction with the charred staves of the barrel to obtain flavour.  For beer, contact with the wood increases the chance of spoilage as it is more difficult to completely disinfect wood than steel or aluminum.  Historically, many brewers lined their barrels with pitch (check out my post!), sterilized them with sulphur (another post on here) or knocked them down (took them apart) and thoroughly cleaned the staves between brews and reassembled the barrels in an attempt to eliminate bacteria.  Due to the lack of modern production of wooden beer barrels we are actually brewing in wooden barrels designed for wine or spirits.  Barrels made for brewing beer, have thicker staves, a more rounded appearance and stand up to internal pressure better than wine or spirit barrels.  The thicker staves hold in the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting beer allowing it to dissolve back into the beer producing natural carbonation.  Wine and spirit barrels do not need to hold pressure in, and their thinner walls allow it to escape.  Today, coopering is a mixture of manual and mechanical work.  Check out this film at BritishPathe for a historic view, and this film from Tonnellerie-Berger or this episode from the Canadian series How It’s Made for a more modern version.  In terms of the tools used for modern coopering, they really have not changed substantially from historic tools.  The advent of machinery has eliminated many of the more difficult manual aspects of the job, such as hooping and chiming, but even modern factories rely on the knowledge and ability of their employees to select the wood and align the staves correctly.  In my next post, I’ll look at some of the tools in our cooperage and discuss their usage in making barrels.

Event – Dog Days of Summer Beer and Cheese Tasting

Friday, August 20th, 2010
This warm weather tasting highlights the most refreshing styles of craft beer paired with local cheeses.  Join expert Julia Rogers and treat yourself to a rich journey into the delicious world of cheese. Guests will sample five local cheese varieties each paired with a selected craft beer, along with our popular homemade root chips and fresh-baked bread. This enjoyable evening includes a guided tour of the brewery!

$30 per person, $27 for members (plus taxes). Call 416-667-6284 for tickets.

History Byte – Instantaneous Beer

One of our Historic Interpreters found this great recipe for Instantaneous Beer, first published in 1846!  If you try this recipe, make sure your bottles have a tight fitting and secure lid as they will be subject to quite a bit of pressure. 

American Housewife and Kitchen Directory, 1869

INSTANTANEOUS BEER: Put to a pint and a half of water four tea-spoonsful of Ginger, a table-spoonful of lemon juice – sweeten it to the taste with syrup or white sugar, and turn it into a junk bottle.  Have ready a cork to fit the bottle, a string or wire to tie it down, and a mallet to drive in the cork.  Then put into the bottle a heaping tea-spoonful of the super-carbonate of soda, cork it immediately, tie it down, the shake the whole up well, cut the string, and the cork will fly out.  Turn it out, and drink immediately. Kitchen Directory and American Housewife. New York: Mark H. Newman & Co., 1846.

 As you may have noticed, this recipe does not include three of the four major ingredients of beer, barley, hops or yeast.  That’s because this drink is trying to replicate Ginger Beer, a popular beverage.  Ginger beers were made in a variety of strengths and some were non-alcoholic.  They were usually bottled soon after brewing and included a substantial amount of sugar for the yeast to act on to create carbonated beverages.  Ginger Beer is the precursor to our modern Gingerale soda drinks and the carbonation was a key factor.  The super-carbonate of soda (what we call baking soda) in the instantaneous beer recipe would react with the lemon juice to create fizz, just like a vinegar and baking soda volcano!

History Byte – Sulphuring: A Stinky Business

Powdered Sulphur

When I think of sulphur, it immediately brings to mind the smell of rotten eggs and childhood trips to the stinky hot springs in Florida.  For Victorians, sulphur was thought of as a cleaning and preservative agent.  In the realm of brewing, sulphur was used in the brewery and out in the fields.  Hops plants were treated with sulphur during the growing season to ward off mould and blight.  Powdered sulphur was thrown across the hops fields before the flowers began to form on the hop vine.  Once picked, the hops flowers began to brown unless they were sulphured.  Hops flowers dried in kilns burning sulphur turned a pale green and were less susceptible to mould.  However, the practice of sulphuring hops was the subject of a raging debate in the 1850s about whether the process damaged the hops and negatively impacted beer brewed with them.  Without a doubt, hops that were left in the sulphuring chamber too long would leave that characteristic sulphur taste in beer brewed with them, but even lightly sulphured hops were believed by some to be harmful to the brew and the drinker!  Hops producers found the preserved hops much more marketable as they looked fresher.  While the debate continued in England, many areas in Germany and Bavaria banned the sale and use of sulphured hops!  Sulphuring hops was still a common form of preservation in some areas, notably the Czech Republic, up until the 1980s.

Besides treating hops, sulphuring was used to cleanse and decontaminate barrels and kegs in the brewery.  Cleanliness was of great importance in the brewery.  Dirty barrels infected fresh beer causing it to sour.  Brewers used several different processes to ensure cleanliness and ease of cleaning including pitching and varnishing barrels.  Transport barrels, that is barrels that went out to customers full of beer, were often returned with dried beer and yeast remnants in them.  To clean them, brewers with steam powered breweries would immediately wash out the returned barrels with boiling water and then cool them with cold water.  Barrels would be examined with a candle prior to being refilled with beer to check for mould spots or in the case of pitched barrels, holes in the layer of pitch.  Barrels that smelt sour were repeatedly scalded out and damaged barrels were sent to the cooper to be repaired.  Some breweries used sulphur, to sanitize the barrels before rinsing them with fresh water.  Different brewers had different methods, but the idea was to burn sulphur to produce sulphuric acid which would kill any mould or bacteria present in the barrel.  One source describes the process of sulphuring a barrel.

“Pieces of linen are prepared by drawing them through melted sulphur.  Small pieces of these are then put upon bent wires, the tap-hole of the barrel is closed, and the burning pieces are introduced through the bung-hole, and allowed to burn in the barrel.  The effect of the formed sulphurous acid is principally based upon the influence it exerts upon ferments.  Sulphuring can never take the place of pitching, but it is advisable to sulphur barrels which have been already used after they have been washed.” 

Larger vessels including brewing vats, could be sterilized by wetting down the walls of the vessels and placing a pan with a few hot coals in it and burning sulphur on the coals.  The vessels were then tightly covered and left for a day before being thoroughly rinsed out.  Some breweries sterilized their whole operation at once by emptying and wetting all their vessels, and burning a pot of sulphur in the room, taking care to seal all the doors and windows.  They would then rinse everything and begin the brewing process.

Check out these historic brewing references available thanks to Google Books!

Practical Brewing. E.R. Southby London, 1885.

A Practical Treatise on Brewing. Thomas Hitchcock. London, 1842.

New Brew – Raspberry Porter

Photo courtesy of Pat Fillion

Ed, our Brewer is currently brewing a batch of raspberry porter.  Described as having a rich, full bodied taste with a subtle tart finish, this brew is sure to please any beer enthusiast.  Brewed with organically grown raspberries hand picked by the brewer himself right here in Black Creek Pioneer Village.  Come on down to the Village and try this exciting new beer beginning Saturday, July 10th, 2010 and available only for a very limited time (until the barrel is empty!).  We hope you enjoy drinking this raspberry porter as much as Ed enjoyed making it!