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I have strange interests. My listeners' faces when I start rattling on about one of my obsessions tells me that. Confusion, pity, boredom. I'm lucky if it's just those and not anger, aggression, loathing.

Bottling is one of those topics. I find it a fascinating story, how a relativley obscure form of packaging beer rocketed to popularity only to fall back down to earth again. But it wasn't just the popularity of bottling beer that was very dynamic, the methods of producing underwent rapid change as well. Within a few decades it went from an expensive product produced by a long natural process to a relativley cheap commodity churned out in a few days.

Judging by the author Frank E. Lott's comments, the rise of bottled beer had taken the brewing industry by surprise.

"About a year ago when looking through the Transactions of the various Institutes of Brewing, I was surprised to find that the subject of bottled beers had never received any special notice, which is the more surprising when one considers that it is during the past ten years or so, that what was formerly a distinct business of its own has been more or less universally incorporated into the general work of the brewery.

In Burton, for instance, when I first came here four and twenty years ago, not one of the twenty-eight firms then established in the town bottled ale for general use; now I believe there are only two or three of the present nineteen firms that do not do so. I will not venture to say what proportion of the beer consumed in this country is bottled die, but I am very sure that the sale of bottled ale, or at any rate what is called bottled ale, has increased at an enormously greater rate than the sale of draught ale, and consequently it should be a question of very great interest to all brewers."
Journal of the Federated Institutes of Brewing, Volume 7, Issue 2, March-April 1901, page 191.
When he talks about "a distinct business of its own" he means that brewers did not themselves bottle. That task was performed by specialist bottlers, who received hogsheads of beer of labels from the brewery which they then packaged and sold themselves. It's a practice that still continued long after breweries had started to bottle themsleves. You can see its traces in many labels for the 1920's and 1930's, where the bottler's name appears along with the brewer's.

It's not surprising that brewers should have wanted to get into the business of bottling. There was money in it. Serious money, as the popuularity of beer in this form boomed. It was a big change. In the 19th century the vast majority of beer drunk at home was draught. Larger households and the better off would buy casks of beer direct from the brewery. The less well off would send their children to fetch jugs of draught beer from a pub or off-licence.

Lott succinctly summarises the three methods of bottling beer:

"Bottling Processes.
Formerly bottling ale meant a very distinct and definite process, for which specially brewed ales were alone considered suitable, and practically only three kinds of ale were bottled — India pale, mild, and strong; now - it is common practice to bottle all kinds of ales, and there is a considerable variety of bottling processes differing very materially from each other. We can, however, classify these different methods under three somewhat distinct headings:—

Firstly, the old-fashioned method of true bottling, requiring specially brewed ales properly matured in cask, and time to develop condition and flavour in bottle.

Secondly, the newer process, forced bottling, by which more or less newly brewed ales are clarified artificially by the action of finings, and, after bottling, forced rapidly into condition by storage at a high temperature.

Thirdly, the comparatively modern process, artificial gas bottling, or carbonatintg, in which the ales, filtered or otherwise flattened and clarified, are bottled under an artificial pressure of carbonic acid gas, separately manufactured. This process might also be called the American process, having been first used for bottling lager beer in the States."
Journal of the Federated Institutes of Brewing, Volume 7, Issue 2, March-April 1901, page 192.
I was a little confused at first by his claim that only three types of Ale were bottled: IPA, Mild Ale and Strong Ale. "What about Stout?", was my immediate reaction. That's a beer that regularly pops up in bottled form in old adverts. Then I realised he was using Ale in the strict sense of the word, that is, not including Porter and Stout.

The presence of Mild Ale in the list surprised me. Given its enormous popularity in the late 19th century, it's odd how rarely Mild was bottled. The same is equally true of Porter.

My inital reaction was that of those three methods, only the first and third are still used. But that's me being overly romantic about modern bottle-conditioning. It's actually the second method that's used today. No-one, with the exception of Belgian Lambic brewers, really carries out a secondary conditioning in casks.

The last method is the commonest today. With the optional extra of pasteurisation. By the 1920's it already beciome the standard method of producing bottled beers, with only a few specialities like Burton Pale Ales, strong Stouts, Strong Ales and Guinness sticking with bottle-conditioning.

Next time we'll be looking at the three different bottling processes in detail.