Eoghan Walsh in praise of the humble beer bottle
Sunday 14 February 2021
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There’s something of a hefty beauty to a full magnum bottle of beer. Maybe it’s the comforting weight of it as it nestles heavily in the palm of your hand, a thumb cantilevered into the little divot in the bottle’s base as you prepare with your other hand to slice off the cork and cage stoppered in the bottle’s mouth. A 750ml bottle, never mind something as piddling as a pint or 330ml stubby, is just too dainty. A Jeroboam and its four litres of beer is just too burly to grasp comfortably with one hand. If you hang around Belgium’s lambic drinkers long enough, sooner or later someone will place a chunky bottle of gueuze in your hand and a knife in the other and invite you to sabre – slice – the top off the bottle in one graceful flick of the wrist. And for these occasions only a magnum will suffice, so, holding the bottle twixt palm and thumb you trace with your other hand the arc of the knife up and down the neck of the bottle, backwards and forwards, building up momentum until eventually…pop!
Out with glass, in with Aluminium
I’m sorry, where was I? As you might have surmised, dear reader, the right kind of beer glassware can arouse in its possessor a certain degree of emotional connection. Now, ordinarily, of all the various kinds of packaging associated with beer, bottles fall pretty low on the appreciation scale. In the second decade of the 21st century, cans are all anyone is concerned with. They are cheaper and lighter to produce and transport, giving them a green aura that their recyclability only enhances. Modern day tinnies have shaken off the mass-market prejudices attached to a previous generation of canned beers. They are also a more expansive canvas onto which brewers and their graphic designers can project their desired self-image through any number of artistic styles - even, as regular Ferment contributor Matthew Curtis has pointed out in a previous article in these pages, to the detriment of the message they are trying to convey.
Aluminium is in, and glass is out. And even if the mind of the average beer drinker does drift towards thinking of glass and its connection to beer, they will more than likely alight on glassware. Every seasoned festival-goer will have a drawer filled with glasses he is always just on the verge of dumping. And for beer drinkers who have tied their mast to one or other national brewing tradition, there is glassware galore to accumulate - Belgian tulips and the cut-glass chalices of Trappist breweries, or hefty Bavarian Maß tumblers. And that’s before mentioning pilfered glassware collected over years of tipsy underhanded manoeuvres.
Show me your bottles and I’ll tell you your history
Glass bottles tend to miss out on much romanticising. Which is unfair, if only because glass bottles and beer have a relationship going back much further than that of the lowly aluminium can. As beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell writes on his Zythophile blog, glass beer bottles date as far back as the mid-17th century and hand-blown bottles consumed by diarist Samuel Pepys. And the use of bottles increased steadily until it exploded alongside the rise of modern industrial brewing in the 20th century; and, while it never surpassed the combined market share of keg, cask, and canned, bottled beer more than held its own into the 21st century. And because they’ve been around for so long, beer bottles appear old hat, lacking the capacity for innovation of their metallic rivals.
But get past these issues, and explain to people that, no, you don’t mean the labels but the bottles, and they’ll soon start to reveal their own romantic attachments and affiliations with the bottles their favourite beers come in. And just as much as what’s in the bottle and what’s taped on it tells you something about the culture that created it, so too does the vessel itself. Take Canada, where from 1962 to 1983 the government standardised beer packaging with the introduction of the “stubby” bottle - brown, squat, durable bottles holding 341ml of beer and endlessly recyclable. As Ontario-based beer writer and educator Jordan St John says, “The early 70’s ones were so sturdy that if you got into a bar fight it was probably going to end in a concussion.” The Canadian government eventually relented and the stubby lost its monopolistic position, but drinkers of St. John’s generation still hold a romantic attachment to these workhorses, and some breweries have attempted to tap into this by re-introducing the stubby.
Or consider the afore-mentioned and ubiquitous German half-litre bottles, also common in Denmark, and known as Euro or NRW bottles and redolent of wegbiers of Augustiner Helles or Tegernsee procured from shabby, brightly lit spätle convenience stores in Berlin. This ode to the humble bottle was prompted by a rough-worn and chipped bottle of Bavarian Schönram Pils that had been through the German recycling system perhaps one too many times.
New beer in old wine bottles
Things get more idiosyncratic, and more sensuous, on the other side of the Alps. Italy has long stood apart from a generalised trend in beer bottles towards the functionalist narrow-with-high-neck 330ml bottles that proliferate across the continent. Instead, Italian craft brewers have taken their cues when it comes to bottles from their counterparts in the country’s more established wine industry. As Fabio Mozzone of brewery Birra Baladin says, the more elegant shape of the Champagne wine bottle - a squat base tapering up to a narrow neck - has been at the core of their identity since the founding of the brewery in 1997. “[Brewery founder] Teo Musso’s goal was to give a new dignity to the beer, since in Italy up to that moment, beer didn’t receive the same attention compared with wine,” Mozzone says. “The real aim was to attract the attention of wine lovers...it was necessary to present it [the beer] with the same elegance, to which they were accustomed.” These bottles also served a more mundane purpose. “The choice has also a technical reason, in order to optimise the second fermentation and at the same time to better control the high pressure, developed inside,” Mozzone says.
Like Baladin, the UK’s London Beer Factory brewery uses champagne-style bottles for their sturdiness and their ability to withstand the pressure created in the bottles by their wild ales. It helps that they come with an alluring shape. “From a packaging design view - we like the distinctive Italianate shape,” says James Leaver, London Beer Factory’s Marketing and Events Manager. “It’s quite easy to tell our bottles apart from everything else on the alt-ferm UK market. I think it adds a uniquely premium nature to the beer and helps convey that the blends we put into these bottles are special.”
As you might expect, Belgian breweries like to experiment occasionally with their bottle designs. Often it is the subtle imprint of a brewery’s name around the shoulder of the bottle, as with Trappist brewery Westmalle. Sometimes it’s by diverging from the standard stubby rippled 330ml brown bottles to something that Canadians might recognise, as with the Kerel brand from the VBDCK brewery. But if there is a Belgian beer bottle that deserves a place in the pantheon of beer design then it is Orval’s. Designed in the 1930s by Henri Vaes, the architect responsible for the design of the Trappist abbey of the same name, the bottle is rotund, bulging out at the middle and tapering again to a thin neck. Kristof Tack, of Belgian importer Gobsmack describes “the sober curves [as] so elegant, it might as well be a modernist design”, while Maarten Schmidt, producer of the recent documentary Beer! puts it another way: “The bottle is so beautiful, it’s a very feminine design... the best sculpted beer bottle I know, and with its minimalist design on the label... I mean you can all enjoy that before you even open the bottle!”
Function over form
Sometimes this objectification of the bottle before the beer can be stretched to ever more outlandish results. Take Viru, for instance, an Estonian beer housed in a tall, rectilinear octagonal bottle. The designers of the bottle say they are harking back to old bottles that would once have been supplied to the Russian imperial court and which, they say, were inspired by the steep medieval towers surrounding the Estonian capital, Tallinn. They have taken this motif, added a dash of Art Deco sharpness and created a visually interesting vessel for their beer.
But, for some, these Italian fancies and baltic exuberances are a case of form over function. Grégoire Rifaut, owner of Brussels’ Dynamo bar, would plump for a stolid English pint (or half-litre) bottle over these excesses: “I personally see beauty in simplicity in bottles…because it has a very simplistic but poetic design, it calls for sharing, doesn’t look bad on a table [and] it feels heavy in my hand but i can still carry for a good distance on foot.” That simple pleasure of a cold bottle in your hand while heading into the night or sitting in a park with friends (when these things were a possibility) is something London-based Pillars Brewery were attempting to tap into when they made the decision to switch to bottles for their range of lagers. “We are a craft lager brewery amongst craft ale breweries, and although cans work really well for the majority of craft ale breweries we found that lager drinkers needed something different,” says Kayleigh Bell, responsible for communications at Pillars. “Our market research has shown that many lager drinkers prefer to drink from a bottle…and there is something particularly satisfying about the experience of holding a cold bottle in your hand. The bottle elicits a feeling of quality and nostalgia which are notions we feel are also synonymous with drinking a well-brewed lager.”
Glass bottles may have passed their heyday, and the inexorable rise of cans - and beyond that a future vista of beer served to go in plastic milk cartons, and bag-in-a-box beer - mean that glass will probably remain a niche packaging solution into that future. And, for the environmental reasons set out above, that’s probably for the best. But nostalgists and breweries seeking to attach themselves to the lingering allure and sophistication of a well-contoured bottle will still reach for glass.
And, if push comes to shove, I will always plump for a stout magnum over a 440ml tin can whenever possible.
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