The Math Of 1600s Beer Can Befuddle Me


I was never much good at math. I liked patterns and making the calculator make words if you loaded in a certain formula. “Esso Oil” could appear on the small LCD screen if you knew the right numbers. So I never became an accountant or an engineer. I was reminded of this when I came across this 1674 entry in the minute books of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, part of that year’s provisioning of that year’s expedition to Canada’s Arctic coast. I understand that 17 men x 28 days x 3 months x 3 quarts = 5 tunns. Or 4284 quarts. But is it true that 4284 quarts equals 5 tunns? What is a tunn? Is there 4284 quarts ÷ 4 quarts in a gallon ÷ 5 tunns mean there are 214.2 gallons to a tunn? This would be a measure way off the pottle chart of the 1840s. Unless I have the math wrong.

Which is exactly the point at which I try to make words appear on my Texas Instrument solar powered pocket calculator in early 1981 or look out the classroom window daydreaming of Friday nights, past or future.

2 thoughts on “The Math Of 1600s Beer Can Befuddle Me”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Rick – December 3, 2013 10:04 AM
    252 gallons to a tun

    Alan – December 3, 2013 10:10 AM
    But not apparently a HBC 1674 tunn. Except… they are buying from the brewer by the tunn so that they are likely not being fine with the calculation so much as ensuring there is a sufficiency. 38 gallons extra per tunn is wiggle room.

    Ironically, there is a diary entry from the expedition then in the field on the Bay that they run out of beer by 20 April 1674. But that news will not get back to England until early autumn. And the crew of the 1674 expedition won’t check back with HBC HQ until the fall of 1675, eighteen months in the future.

    Alan – December 3, 2013 10:17 AM
    The math for the 22 men works out roughly the same. 32 men x 7 months x 28 days a month x 3 quarts a day per man = 18816 quarts. And 18816 quarts divided by 4 quarts to the gallon divided by 22 tunns equals just under 214 gallons a tunn.

    Alan – December 3, 2013 12:24 PM
    Apparently a tun or ton or tunne or tonne can mean a number of things.

    Brian W. – December 3, 2013 4:37 PM
    Kenneth Kilby’s “The Cooper and His Trade” (1971) has a long and confusing explanation. It is confusing because the “system” in use was a giant freakin’ mess:

    “Following in the wake of discoveries, world trade expanded rapidly in the Stuart period, and consequently this period saw a very noticeable growth in the realm of coopering. Wine was being imported in considerable quantities, and in fact, prior to 1626, the tonnage of a ship was based on the carrying capacity of ships engaged in the Bordeaux Wine Trade. The unit was a tun of wine in two butts, equalling 252 gallons, and occupying 60 cu. ft. After 1626 it was estimated empirically as 207 old, equalling 176 new, and only in modern times has it become possible to calculate exact tonnage.” (p.134)

    “The rather quaint sizes of casks owe their origins to far more diverse and interacting intentions. The availability of timber, coopering ability, tradition, local pride, petty arbitrary decisions and downright cussedness all played their part in determining cask sizes, but despite this they they came to be accepted as official units of measurement. Kings and governments tried to standardize units. In 1423 we had the ‘hogges hede’ fixed at 63 old wine gallons, that is 52 1/2 gallons.Richard III fixed wine barrels at 31 1/2 gallons. Henry VI stipulated 30-gallon barrels for eels, which Edward IV changed to 42 gallons to include salmon and spruce. George III made it 38 wine gallons. Henry VIII fixed ale barrels at 32 gallons, country ale at 34, and beer at 36.” (p.135)

    The key bit of information seems to be this one:
    An “oil tun” is “252 wine gallons or 210 imperial gallons” (p. 62)

    Maybe it is both 252 gallons and 214 gallons. Just depends on what kind of gallons you are talking about.

    I guess they still use imperial gallons in the UK which are different from the gallons we use in the US. I have to do a conversion every time I use a recipe from “Old British Beers and How to Make Them” because all the recipes are for 1 Imperial gallon batches.

    Alan – December 3, 2013 8:19 PM
    That is great! Thanks for the dis-clarification. BTW, what the heck is country ale?

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