I’ve recently been acquainting myself with the traditional units of volume used in the ale/beer brewing industry, and have detailed them below. The units in this post are for beer and ale; a different set of units were used for wine and spirits (maybe a future post?).

I’ll start with a table of the cask/keg sizes that are commonly used (or not so commonly used any more as the case may be), my favourite is the hogshead — what a great name for a unit of measure!

Unit Gallons
Tun 216
Butt 108 (12 tun)
Hogshead 54 (14 tun)
Barrel 36 (16 tun)
Kilderkin 18 (12 barrel)
Firkin 9 (14 barrel)
Pin 4 ½ (12 firkin)

Usage of these units dates back to at least the 15th century. The size of the barrel (and consequently the firkin, hogshead etc) has varied throughout time and usage. For example, in the 15th century, a barrel of ale was 32 gallons whereas a barrel of beer was 36 gallons. When the imperial system was defined in 1824, all types of gallons (ale, wine etc) were replaced with one imperial gallon. At that point, the barrel of beer was set to 36 imperial gallons or 16 tun, as seen in the table above.

According to a book shared by @MunsterBrewery, the original pre-imperial values are used for Irish porter (e.g. 8 gallon firkin, as seen in the picture below).

Here are some more information on these units:

Firkin

The word firkin originates from the Dutch vierdekijn, meaning ‘fourth part’, as the firkin is 14 of a barrel (9 gallons).  The firkin is widely used by brewers in the UK and the US. It was also formerly  used as a unit of weight in the trade of things like butter, cheese, fish and soap. A firkin of butter/cheese was 56 lb (4 st) and a firkin of soap was 64 lb.

Pin

The pin is another word for a 12 firkin. It is popular in the off-trade and with home brewers; plastic versions are called ‘polypins’. It works out at 36 pints — perfect for a party or a festival!

Kilderkin

This word is also borrowed from the Dutch language, from a word meaning “small cask”. It is 2 firkins (18 gallons) and also still widely used in the UK and US. Of the traditional measures, it is the most likely to be used in pubs (a kilderkin contains 144 pints).

Barrel

Barrels come in all shapes and sizes, but always refers to a specific amount, depending on usage. In terms of beer and ale, a barrel is 2 kilderkins (36 gallons). The barrel container itself could be traditional wooden cooperage or stainless steel.

Hogshead

The origins of this unusual (and fantastic!) word are unknown, but English philologist Walter William Skeat (1835–1912) reckons it originates from several Germanic words such as the Duch okshoofd, German oxhoft and Swedish oxhufvod, all of which mean oxhead. It is also believed that the name comes from the containers often being branded with a mark that resembles the head of an ox. It’s not clear how “ox” became “hog”, just one of those oddities in the English language!

It is 14 tun or 54 gallons. It’s still sometimes used by breweries, but given its size it’s not widely used. There are also a number of pubs called “Hogshead” in the UK and US, including the Hogshead Brewery in Denver Colorado, who tell me that the bulk of their cooperage is the firkin, but also do pins and kilderkins.

Hogshead Brewery logo

The Joseph Holt brewery in Manchester also have hogsheads, and shared the picture below with me — although they are only really used for big events.

Joseph Holt Hogsheads
Image curtesy of Joseph Holt brewery

The hogshead was also once used in the sale of things like sugar (1,456–1,792 lb) and tobacco (1,344–2,016 lb).

Tun and Butt

The tun is the largest unit used for cask ale at 216 gallons. The origins of the word are shared with the ton unit of weight, with similar words in old English, Germanic languages, old French and Gaelic. The ton weight is based on the weight of one tun cask of wine. The butt is 12 a tun or 2 hogsheads.

So there you have it, as always these units have a long history of usage, are quirky and have a lot of character! 

Barrels of Firkin Hogsheads!