Beer school: bottles

If ten green bottles were hanging on a wall, and one should “accidentally” fall straight into my hands, what are the chances that it’s filled with beer?


If ten green bottles were hanging on a wall, and one should “accidentally” fall straight into my hands, what are the chances that it’s filled with beer? In our world, the answer is “very likely”. But before the 20th century, this little scenario would likely not have got you some delicious ale. Bottled beer only became seriously popular after the Second World War, though innovations in bottling certainly made it well known as far back as the mid 1800s. Through the ages, beer bottles have changed shape, size, and colour, from ink black to aqua blue. Ferment invites you to jump in and find out how, and why, bottles have not always been simply bottles.

Naturally, we think of bottles as being made of glass, but the first bottles for storing beer were made out of pottery or stoneware. As techniques progressed, pottery bottles were often glazed with a two-tone effect and stamped with a pottery name. Stoneware bottles showed up throughout the 18th to the early 20th centuries, and can in fact be more useful than glass bottles at protecting against the detrimental effects of light on hop acids in beer. However, they could not compete with glass bottles in terms of weight, and never became as popular.

When brewers first began bottling beer into hand-blown glass bottles in the 1600s, they weren’t very popular, mainly because they kept exploding, despite being capped with corks and strapped with wire. Blame the pressure of carbon dioxide from secondary fermentation and the fragility of hand-blown glass at the time. Gervaise Markham, writing in 1615, advised housewife brewers that when bottling ale “you should put it into round bottles with narrow mouths, and then, stopping them close with corks, set them in a cold cellar up to the waist in sand, and be sure that the corks be fast tied with strong pack thread, for fear of rising out and taking vent, which is the utter spoil of the ale.”

It’s likely that most of the bottled beer from around this time was heavy, high in alcohol (low sanitation levels in those times meant bottled beer easily spoiled, and a high abv was one protection against this), and very low in carbonation. Early bottles were often thick, and dark - almost black - as they had to survive much handling post-bottling and were re-used many times due to the high cost of glass.

It wasn’t until the late 1600s, after a century of developments and improvements, that people started to take to them. Samuel Pepys recorded drinking “several bottles of Hull ale” with friends at an inn called the Bell in London in November 1660. At the time there was no specialization of shapes, and beer and wine bottles were identical: squat, and with a square body when viewed from the side. Sizes varied.

In 1691, one of the first books on brewing, A New Art of Brewing Beere, written by Thomas Tryon, proclaimed, “It is a great custom and general fashion nowadays to bottle ale… the chief thing that can be said for bottle-ale or beer is that it will keep longer than in barrels.” Tyron was not a fan, however, claiming “bottle-ale or beer is not so good or wholesome as that drawn out of the barrel or hogshead” and blaming the “cold, Saturnine” nature of the bottle in giving a “cold and brisk” flavour of bottled ale. Beer and wine bottles took on their own distinctive shapes from around the 1760s, with a tall and narrow look for wine bottles, while beer bottles retained their squat shape with low-shoulders, a style known as ‘porter’.

Bottled beer remained a luxury in the 18th century, and was generally only used for export. Bottling was an expensive, manual procedure and outside of Europe, bottles were often scarce.

Mass production eradicated the variety of styles previously seen. Two other dominant styles emerged alongside the export bottle. In America, the development of lager spurred on the creation of a new lager style of beer bottle, with very sloped shoulders and longer necks. The champagne beer bottle appeared in the 1870s, similar to today’s wine bottles, but with a narrow body and longer neck. Many were embossed with a ‘slug plate’, a trend replaced by a proliferation of labels in the twentieth century.

Bottled beers really took off after the First World War. One reason was taxation: higher taxes meant weaker beer, which goes off more quickly, and so pub drinkers got into the habit of “livening up” bad draught beer with good bottled beer. Cornell explains that “This was the origin of once-popular drinks such as light-and-bitter (bottled low-gravity pale ale, draught bitter) and brown-and-mild (bottled brown ale, draught mild).”

It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War when the glass bottle became the most popular way to transport beer, with the surge in popularity causing The Statist magazine to declare: “It is probable that within a decade draught milds and bitters will no longer make up the major part of brewery production.” By 1959, bottled beer was 36 per cent by volume of the UK beer market, though brewers like Mann’s had a much higher percentage, estimating in 1958 that bottled beer made up nearly 70 per cent of its production. Green glass had become popular in Europe thanks to a shortage of brown for a time during the war, and came to denote higher quality beer from European breweries, opposed to the clear glass, watered-down American lager of post-war times.

Contrary to The Statist’s prediction, the trend in bottled beer did not continue to escalate, and went from 34 per cent of all beer sold in 1960 to nine per cent in 1984. The culprit? Keg beer. Bottled premium lager caused a boost in the early 1990s, back up to 13 per cent in 1998, and the burgeoning craft beer/microbrewery scene produced a great number of new bottled ales for the market, shunning canning for its prohibitive cost and association with the mass market. This, coupled with the increase in supermarket sales, caused a huge rise in bottled beer sales.

Today we have ceramic bottles again, as well as the rarer black glass and cobalt. Carlsberg is working on a bottle composed of wood pulp and some breweries are now moulding special bottles with sculpted designs, words and logos. Bright coloured glass is rare - aqua is for gin - and brown bottles are very popular because they let the least amount of ultraviolet light in, preventing ‘light strike’ or skunky flavour, though clear glass can now be coated with UV protectant. Many breweries like the ease at which glass can be recycled, and the UK looks set to run a bottle return/deposit scheme in a bid to fight the litter pollution crisis. Recycling of glass creates no additional byproduct or waste, and is actually energy-efficient because it takes less heat to melt recycled glass than it does the raw materials.

So next time you see ten green bottles hanging on a wall, don’t let them accidentally fall, take them to the bottle bank, marvel at their history for a brief second, and then do something good for the planet.

 Today’s bottles are made in basically the same way as hundreds of years ago, but with greater automation.

Soda ash, sand and limestone are mixed with various minerals for colour, transported to a furnace and heated to 1565°C (that’s 2850°F for you old schoolers). The mixture becomes molten, glowing red hot.

A refiner removes trapped air bubbles in the liquid glass, which is then passed through a feeder and cut with shear blades into elongated cylinders called gobs, individual pieces ready for forming.

The gobs are poured into small moulds, half the bottle’s final size. There are then dropped into moulds the same size as the completed beer bottle, and compressed air is forced in, blowing the molten glass out until it reaches the sides of the larger mould. If any embossment is required, it will be carved into the walls of the final mould.

The bottles need to be cooled in a controlled way called annealment, to prevent weakness and fractures in the glass.

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