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Beer is one of man’s earliest fermented beverages, followed rather quickly by the vessel needed to carry it to friends, family and customers. Beer jugs have been discovered dating back to the Neolithic period. (From 10,200 BC to around 4,500 or 2,000 BC)
Some credit Church of England rector, Dr. Alexander Nowell, with the invention of bottled beer 440 years ago in Hertfordshire, England. Since the origins of glass bottles can be traced back to about 1500 B.C. it’s not much of a stretch to imagine beer had been stored in bottles of various sizes and shapes for hundreds or thousands of years before Dr. Nowell had a happy accident on the River Ash in the 16th century. According to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain the ability to bottle ale was discovered accidentally when Dr Alexander Nowell left a bottle of beer, decanted from a barrel, on the river bank during a fishing trip. “When he came upon it again quite by chance a few days later, he found it was still perfectly drinkable.” Wait, there’s more. When he opened the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed the original of bottled ale in England.”
If this story is to be believed, what had really occurred was the ale had begun secondary fermentation in the corked bottle, building up carbon dioxide pressure so that it gave a loud pop when it was finally opened.
While Fuller’s story is entertaining, it’s unlikely Dr. Nowell was the person really responsible for the advent of bottled beer. It’s more probable that domestic brewers, always an inventive bunch, had been experimenting with storing beer in glass bottles during that same time period. Part of the problem, it appears, was that the hand-blown glass bottles of the era could not take the strain of the CO2 pressure.
But perhaps we can offer Dr. Nowell this much credit. Much like Newton’s apple was the epiphany leading to the Universal Laws of Gravity. Maybe the story of Dr. Nowell’s forgotten bottle on the banks of the River Ash lead to the development of the first carbonated bottled beer and what we enjoy today, bottle conditioned beer.
The advent of bottled beer also leads to the earliest beer geek diss:
Thomas Tryon, author of one of the earliest books on brewing, A New Art of Brewing Beere, wrote in 1691: “It is a great custom and general fashion nowadays to bottle ale; but the same was never invented by any true naturalist that understood the inside of things. For though ale be never so well wrought or fermented in the barrel, yet the bottling of it puts it on a new motion or fermentation, which wounds the pure spirits and … body; therefore such ale out of bottles will drink more cold and brisk, but not so sweet and mild as the same ale out of a cask, that is of a proper age: besides the bottle tinges or gives it a cold hard quality, which is the nature of glass and stone, and being the quantity is so small, the cold Saturnine nature of the bottle has the greater power to tincture the liquor with its quality. Furthermore, all such bottle drinks are infected with a yeasty furious foaming matter which no barrel-ale is guilty of … for which reason bottle-ale or beer is not so good or wholesome as that drawn out of the barrel or hogshead; and the chief thing that can be said for bottle-ale or beer is that it will keep longer than in barrels, which is caused by its being kept, as it were, in continued motion or fermentation.”
For the next 150 years after being perfected, bottled beer remained a luxury. Bottles were expensive, and the process was labor intensive as each one had to be cleaned, filled, and corked by hand, with corks held down by wire. Since secondary fermentation would provide enough carbonation en route, anyone bottling beer for export, which usually required a long sea journey, was advised to let it go flat before corking it.
Bottles were scarce outside Europe, and in Bristol, the bottle-makers, not the brewers, bottled beer for export. Sending their bottles abroad with something desirable inside provided a much higher profit margin. In the American colonies, brewers advertised for empty bottles, and in 1790 the US Congress considered an $8,000 loan to a glass-maker in Maryland to rebuild his factory due in part to a drastic shortage of black quart beer bottles.
Not all early beer bottles were made of glass – Porter, a forerunner of today’s stout, was often carried in stoneware containers. These containers were strong, cheap, and durable but extremely heavy.
Early glass bottle innovation
When they weren’t hand-blown, early glass bottles were made using molds of clay, wood, brass and other materials. A patent for the first iron bottle mold was granted to Joseph Magown in the United States in 1847, followed in 1866 by the invention of the chilled iron mold, which cut costs and speeded up production.
London’s Whitbread brewery began one of the earliest large scale beer bottling operations in 1870. Though bottles were more plentiful, they still required corks, which required an army of workers to knock the corks home. In 1886, Whitbread employed more than a hundred corkers, each man working a 12-hour day.
As anyone who drinks wine can tell you, corked beer bottles are inconvenient for the consumer: a corkscrew is required, and bottles can’t easily be resealed. This led to the invention of the screw top beer bottle in 1879 by Englishman, Henry Barrett. Barrett had invented a cheap, convenient, reusable container that offered little or no waste. The screw-topped beer bottle design caught on rapidly.
When American, William Painter, invented the crown cork in 1892, screw tops were still used for quart bottles where the customer might want to easily reseal the container.
In the 1870s, discoveries by the French scientist, Dr. Louis Pasteur, led to the invention of “pasteurization”, heating beer in bottles to 122 Fahrenheit (50 degrees centigrade) for half an hour, which killed off any bacteria in the beer and left it stable and unlikely to spoil for many months. The idea was embraced by brewers in the United States, who began subjecting their bottled beer to “the steaming process” as early as 1877.
Pasteur was born on 27 December 1822 in Dole in the Jura region of France. After several years’ research and teaching in Dijon and Strasbourg, in 1854, Pasteur was appointed professor of chemistry. He was able to demonstrate that organisms such as bacteria were responsible for souring wine and beer and that the bacteria could be removed by boiling and then cooling the liquid. This process is now called pasteurization. Pasteur then undertook experiments to find where these bacteria came from, and was able to prove that they were introduced from the environment.
Bottling process innovation
American brewers also led with other innovations in bottling; by 1897 they had developed processes for chilling and filtering beers, so that they would remain “bright” in the bottle as well as the process for artificially carbonating beer before bottling.
The first beer can appeared in the carefully chosen test market of Richmond, Virginia just after the end of Prohibition in 1934. The American Can Company had been experimenting with the idea of packaging beer in cans since 1909. They knew that canned beer would offer breweries lots of advantages in shipping weight, material costs, recyclability, protection, and branding surface. But putting beer in cans initially came with significant challenges. The first was the reaction that beer has with many metals. It doesn’t matter how pretty or cost effective the package is if the contents are undrinkable. A lining had to be developed. Another challenge to canning beer was one of internal pressure generated by carbonated beer. Traditionally, cans were developed to protect the contents from the outside environment under equalized pressures. Carbonated beer required not only protection, but containment. The cans would have to be able to withstand up to 80 pounds per square inch of internal pressure.
Prohibition in 1919 put a halt to the project. In the late 1920s Pabst and Anheuser-Busch saw the eventual end to Prohibition approaching and asked American Can to restart work on the design for the beer can. By 1933 American Can had designed a can strong enough for the pressures of packaged beer and developed a lining of moldable plastic called Vinylite to protect the beer from the metal interior. Initial tests with Pabst were positive but the big brewers wouldn’t commit until the can had been tested in the real world market. Richmond, Va. was chosen as that initial test market.
Still struggling to recover from Prohibition, Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company in Newark, New Jersey jumped at American Can’s offer to build them canning line and pay for the initial test batches. In June of 1934 four cans of beer each and a questionnaire were delivered to one thousand homes in the Richmond, Virginia. The results were better than anyone expected. By January 1935 Krueger’s canned beer was being sold throughout the city. And so the beer can was born.
With the success of their initial test came another problem. The cans developed by American Can required the prohibitive expense of a completely new packaging line. The problem was solved with the development of the bottle shaped or cone top cans that could be sealed with crown caps just like bottles. This allowed smaller breweries to run the can through their current bottling lines. They could enjoy the cost effectiveness of the cans without having to retool their packaging lines. As breweries upgraded their equipment over the years the cone top cans slowly disappeared and by 1960 were extinct.
Pittsburgh Brewing Company introduced the first pull tab beer cans in 1963 on their iconic Iron City Beer and consumers loved them. But these easily removable strips of metal caused a whole new set of problems. Drinkers indiscriminately littered the landscape with the sharp metal tabs. Falls City Brewing Company of Louisville, KY introduced the first fixed or stay tab beer can in 1975.
Packaging today (and beyond)
The US is once again leading the way with rapid growth of small craft breweries. But this time it is being driven by consumer demand; a desire by many to try something new or different and the trust and quality in local product is high. As the number of breweries expands so does the number of products available and each is competing for a voice, again hoping for customers to readily identify and repurchase.
Today, packaging is at the forefront of change, not languishing in the cellar as it was years ago, but readily recognized as a part of a product’s appeal is its ability to get its message across. In this industry, change is rapid.