The year was 1798 and the place was Helgoland.
Helgoland is located in the North Sea, 70 kilometres off of the coast of Germany. This is important, since it is the remote location that made Helgoland, in 1798, the birthplace of the beer bottle organ.
The church that was located on Helgoland in 1798 had a regular pipe organ and the congregation was getting tired of paying an organ tuner to sail to the island once a month to tune it up.
The pastor commissioned an ex-mercenary soldier/organ builder from Eisleben (later East Germany) to build an organ that would not go out of tune due to changes in temperature or humidity.
Johann Samuel Kuhlewein thought about his challenge for a while, played with a few ideas, and then decided to try building an organ using bottles instead of the standard organ pipes.
He apparently used sealing wax to fine tune the bottles, where they are said to have performed magnificently until the late 1800s when the island became depopulated and the organ fell into disrepair.
Fast forward now to 1998, exactly 200 years after the first beer bottle organ was built. A company named Peterson Strobe Tuners was looking for a way to celebrate its 50th anniversary. One of its organ designers, Gary Rickert, came up with the idea of a bottle organ.
Apparently, he knew nothing about the Helgoland organ at the time, but he began to experiment. He often worked into the nights and over weekends, trying different bottle sizes and styles.
Eventually, Gary and two of his co-workers (Joe Farmer and Bill Bernahl) found the combination of bottles and cabinetry that worked.
The bottles are not filled with beer since it would evaporate and the organ would constantly go out of tune.
While sipping away at beer to constantly keep tuning the organ sounds kind of fun at first blush, it might wear thin in time. So, the designers found that using glycerine in the bottles means no evaporation. And yes, the sound is emitted by blowing air across the tops of the bottles, just like those annoying roommates did during your college days.
We don’t know many details about the original Helgoland organ, but the Peterson organ has 72 beer bottles and plays three octaves. Through the magic of the Internet we have heard some of the songs that the organ plays and, believe it or not, it sounds pretty good.
Apparently, you can purchase a beer bottle organ from Peterson Strobe Tuners, although we have not looked into the cost. It seems to us that it would make a lot more sense to make this a do-it-yourself winter project, if you decided you couldn’t do without one.
Of course, since we know that the organ contains 72 bottles, we think it might be more fun to start a Whitehorse beer bottle choir, with 72 of our closest friends.
On the other hand, around here getting three people doing things in a coordinated fashion can sometimes be a challenge – 72 sounds darn near impossible.
Maybe we will stick to karaoke.
This column is courtesy of the Yukon Brewing Company, an organization that has amazing cross-merchandising potential.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF PETERSON STROBE TUNERS www.petersontuners.com