A short history of bottled beer

Bottled beer was invented in Hertfordshire some 440 years ago, the most popular story says, by a forgetful Church of England rector and fishing fanatic called Dr Alexander Nowell.

While Nowell was parish priest at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, around 20 miles north of London, in the early years of Elizabeth I, it is said that he went on a fishing expedition to the nearby River Ash, taking with him for refreshment a bottle filled with home brewed ale. When Nowell went home he left the full bottle behind in the river-bank grass. According to Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of Britain, published a hundred years later, when Nowell returned to the river-bank a few days later and came across the still-full bottle, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed (causality is mother of more inventions than industry) the original of bottled ale in England.”

The ale, of course, had undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle, building up carbon dioxide pressure so that it gave a loud pop when Nowell pulled the cork out. Such high-condition ale must have been a novelty to Elizabethan drinkers, who knew only the much flatter cask ales and beers. However, Fuller’s story is fun, but it seems unlikely Nowell really was the person who invented bottled beer: it seems more than probable that brewers were experimenting generally with storing beer in glass bottles in the latter half of the 16th century, though there is no apparent evidence of commercial bottling until the second half of the 17th century, only bottling by domestic brewers.

Part of the problem was that the hand-blown glass bottles of the time could not take the strain of the CO2 pressure. 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.”

Corked-bottle version of Worthington 'White Shield' IPA

(There is, incidentally, a garbled version of the “bottle as gun” tale which seems to have materialised in the late 19th century, and which conflates the bottled ale story with another about Nowell fleeing England in a hurry in the reign of Queen Mary, after he received a warning that his enemy Bishop Bonner, known as “Bloody Bonner”, was out to arrest him for heresy. For some reason, in this version of the story Nowell is called “Newell”.)

Despite the introduction of a tax on glass in 1645 (it was removed in 1699 and re-imposed in 1746), bottled ale did become increasingly available. Samuel Pepys recorded drinking “several bottles of Hull ale” with friends at an inn called the Bell in London in November 1660. (This was very likely ale from somewhere like Derby or Burton upon Trent, shipped via Hull to London). The household accounts of the Cecil family, earls of Salisbury, in 1634 suggest the nobility and gentry, who brewed their own ale and beer on their country estates for themselves and their staff, servants and workers, would drink strong bottled beer when they came to London. This was probably bottled in the country and brought up to the capital when necessary: Wheatley Hall, Doncaster, home of the Cooke family, had a bottle room in 1683, Holkham Hall in Norfolk in 1671 had two bottled beer stores leading off the “small beer cellar” (that is, cellar for small beer), and in 1676 the Earl of Bedford’s household accounts show the purchase from a brewer near the family seat at Woburn of ale “to bottle for my lord’s drinking”.

Not everybody approved of bottled beer. 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.”

Bottled beer remained a luxury, and generally only used for the export market, for another 150 years. Bottles themselves were expensive, and each one had to be filled and corked by hand, with the corks held down by wire. Anyone bottling beer for a long journey overseas was advised to let it go flat before corking it, since secondary fermentation in the bottle would give quite enough carbonation. Outside Europe, bottles were often scarce, and in Bristol, it was the bottle-makers, rather than the brewers, who bottled beer for export: sending their bottles abroad with something saleable inside gave a double profit. In the American colonies, brewers sometimes had to advertise for empty bottles, and in 1790 the US Congress approved was asked to approve an $8,000 loan (a huge sum for the time) to a glass-maker in Maryland to rebuild his factory specifically to make beer bottles apparently at least in part in connection with a shortage of black quart beer bottles.

Not all beer bottles were made of glass: porter, the forerunner of today’s stouts, was frequently put into stoneware containers that look like old-fashioned ginger beer bottles. They were strong; but also extremely heavy.

A 19th century stoneware porter bottle

Early glass bottles, when they weren’t hand-blown, were made with primitive moulds of clay, wood, brass and other not-very-suitable materials. A patent for iron bottle moulds was granted to Joseph Magown in the United States in 1847, and in 1866 the chilled iron mould was invented, which cut costs and speeded up production. In 1835 the great London porter brewery Barclay Perkins was bottling just four per cent of its output. But bottled beer now began to increase in popularity, helped in Britain by the removal of glass tax in 1845. A decline in beer consumption also helped: where a householder would have bought a four-and-a-half gallon wooden cask to last a week, now he was happier to take a crate of four quart bottles, which kept longer in good condition.

The London brewer Whitbread began one of the earliest big bottling operations in 1870. But it still had to use corked bottles, which meant an army of workers to knock home the corks. Whitbread employed more than a hundred corkers, each man working a 12-hour day, in 1886: every bottle had to be inserted into a leather “boot” held between the knees, and the cork knocked in with a “flogger”. Corked beer bottles were also inconvenient for the drinker: a corkscrew was required, and bottles could not be easily resealed.

In 1879 an Englishman, Henry Barrett invented the screwtop beer bottle, a cheap, convenient, reusable container that meant little or no waste. The moulds for the bottles came in three pieces, one each for the sides and one for the top. The screw-topped beer bottle caught on rapidly. Even when an American, William Painter, invented the crown cork in 1892, screw tops were still used for quart bottles where the customer might want to reseal the container in order to have some more beer later.

Bottled beer was given a further boost by the discoveries of the French scientist Louis Pasteur in the 1870s, which led to the invention of “pasteurisation”, heating beer in bottles to 50 degrees centigrade for half an hour, which killed off any bugs in the beer and left it stable and unlikely to go off for many months. The idea caught on quickly with brewers in the United States, who were subjecting their bottled beers to “the steaming process” as early as 1877. American brewers also led with other advances in bottling, so that by 1897 they had solved the problems involved in chilling and filtering beers, so that they would remain “bright” in the bottle, and then artificially carbonating them before bottling. The technology soon came to Britain, and by 1899 the Notting Hill Brewery Company in West London was advertising its “Sparkling Dinner Ale” as “a revolution in English bottled beers, produced entirely on a new system … no deposit, no sediment, brilliant to the last drop, no waste whatever.”

It was not until after the First World War that bottled beers really took off, however. At Steward & Patteson of Norwich, one of the biggest brewers in East Anglia, for example, bottled beer was just over four per cent of company beer sales by turnover in 1911-14, but 24 per cent by 1927-29 and 32 per cent in 1930-32. One big reason was that higher taxes meant weaker beer, and weak draught beer went off more quickly. Pub drinkers thus got into the habit of “livening up” with bottled beer draught beer that might not be in top condition. 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).

Guinness bottle with fired-on label

War in 1939 made everything scarce, from bottles themselves to the labels that went on the outside. When the war ended the swing to bottled beer was so rapid that by 1952 The Statist magazine was declaring: “It is probable that within a decade draught milds and bitters will no longer make up the major part of brewery production.” The Statist was guilty of the common economist’s sin of extrapolating trends without considering that they might slow down: even so, by 1959 “packaged” beer, which meant almost entirely bottled beer, was 36 per cent by volume of the UK beer market. For some brewers the proportion was even higher: Mann’s brewery in London, famous for brown ale, estimated in 1958 that bottled beer made up nearly 70 per cent of its production. At Whitbread, nearly half the trade in 1959 was in bottled Mackeson milk stout, which the company had acquired after a series of takeovers in the 1920s. Bottling technology had now advanced far from the hand-corkers of 80 years earlier, to the point where brewery bottling halls were mechanically washing, filling, corking, pasteurising and labelling 2,000 dozen bottles an hour.

That was the high point for bottled beer in the UK, however. The arrival of keg beer as a solution to quality problems in the pub, and the rise of beer in cans, meant bottled beer sales went into a slide: slowly at first, from 34 per cent of all beer sold in 1960 to 27 per cent in 1969, and then rapidly, 20 per cent in 1974, 12 per cent in 1979, nine per cent in 1984. Hundreds of brands disappeared: where every brewer would have produced, say, its own brown ale or milk stout, now only a few survived, such as Mann’s brown or Mackeson.

However, the increased popularity of bottled premium lager from the early 1990s helped push sales of all bottled beer back up, to around 13 per cent in 1998. At the same time the growing UK microbrewery sector meant a rapid and substantial rise in the number of new bottled ales on the market. As off sales grew, particularly in supermarkets, bottled ale sales grew with them, and Britain’s smaller brewers were able to advance in a market where the international giants were largely absent. In 2003, for example, Jennings Brothers of Cumbria announced a 48% rise in bottled beer sales. Many of these new sales were in bottle-conditioned beers, where the sparkle once again came from yeast left in the bottle, rather than artificial carbonation. In the 1970s there were only about five bottle-conditioned beer brands left in Britain, including Worthington White Shield. By 1997, thanks to the microbrewers, there were around a hundred: by 2004 there were an estimated 500 or more. Dr Nowell’s invention is still going like a gun.

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23 thoughts on “A short history of bottled beer

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  3. Martyn,

    Have you found anything on the swing top style bottles used by Grolsch? My completely blind guess is that they originated in Bavaria where their use seems to be most widespread (but still sparse).

    I also recall accounts of Gose (on Ron’s blog) in bottles that described the secondary fermentation naturally plugging up the long narrow neck of the typical Gose bottle.

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  4. You mention that most bottled beers were exported. Recently I read in a book about Argentine history a quote from a book written by an Englishman, who lived there in the first quarter of the 19th century, saying that public officers were usually bribed with bottles of beer.

    Since then, I’ve wondered what kind of beer it was. I have strong reasons to believe it was English, though it could also have been from South Africa. Any idea what it might have been? (there are records that say beer was also smuggled to Buenos Aires in the late 18th century). And also, can it have been bottled?

    BTW, the book is in Spanish so it mentions “cerveza”, so I have no way of knowing whether it was Ale, Porter or something else.

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    • I’m away from my sources, PF, but I believe it’s quite likely this could have been English beer, possibly Irish and Scottish beer as well: certainly brewers such as Bass, Younger and Guinness were exporting to South America in the second half of the 19th century.

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      • Thanks,

        I thought so, and if all of those were exporting in the second half of the century, likely is that at least one was exporting in the first half. What I wonder is if they exported bottles. Do you think it likely back then? If bottles were sent to other colonies, then they could have been sent to Buenos Aires as well, though I don’t know if anyone would want to travel so far carrying something as fragile and heavy as bottled beer.

        I ask because if they were bringing barrels, then it would mean that there was at least one bottler in the city back in those days, which might mean that brewing might have also been done by someone already.

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  6. Interesting and thought-provoking as always. I am trying to parse the more obscure parts of Tryon’s comments, what does he mean by the beer being “cold” and |”hard” like glass or stone is? Hard can’t mean acid since he states the value of bottling is to keep beer for longer than casking will keep it. It can’t mean still since the whole point of his comments are the fizzy nature of bottled beer.

    In general though his take seems quite clear and indeed is accurate to this day if one considers only bottle-conditioned beer. Thus, the latter, even when carefully poured, never seems as bright as cask beer. This does not bother everyone but I plump for bright real ale, I find even a light haze can obscure malt and hop character and I like it very clear.

    I am not sure if finings existed in Tryon’s time for barreled beer. But evidently a way was found to ensure this characteristic, perhaps simply by long standing. I think I know what he means by the “furious foaming” yeast quality of bottle beer. I just opened a French bottle-conditioned beer, and even though I had let it sit for months and the yeast looked compacted on the base, it surged up through the beer when opened. A fault of some kind caused this, and no doubt something similar afflicted bottled beer in Tryon’s day before yeast and the need to sanitize bottles were well-understood. Indeed he used the term infection and may have meant that bottled beer was subject to unstable re-fermentation through influence of wild yeast. (Yet if this was meant, again it seems hard to square this with his comments that bottling assisted the keeping of beer; how could it keep if it was yeast-infected…?).

    But again in general I find he was right. Good as bottle-conditioned beer can be, it rarely seems to reach the heights of a fine cask beer even for strong or aged specialties.

    Gary

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    • I assumed Tryon is trying to analyse bottled ale in Platonic terms, ie earth/air/fire/water, and was trying to say that because glass is cold and hard, ale in glass must take on the characteristics of the container – remember, they had no clue at all about chemistry in the 17th century …

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  8. Just a bit of interesting context on bottle exports. When Carl Jacobsen was serving his apprenticeship in the UK, JC Jacobsen asked him to send over some English beer to test. Carl sent Bass over in barrels . JC Jacobsen, being a stickler for detail, also asked for labels. The beer was bottled at Carlsberg – and one of them is still on display at the brewery. Do you know if this was typical or a one-off?

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  9. What a great, fun and informative article. Do you have anything on the historical development of bottled beer in Belgium specifically? I’m hosting a Belgian beer tasting at the end of April and expect this to be an issue (as I wasn’t able to answer this to any satisfying degree last time). :-)

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  11. I am seeking any information on a salt glazed, off-white beer (?) bottle stamped in cobalt, seraphed, block letters “FRANCIS.” I am assuming it is American. Does anyone have any ideas?

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  15. I have a old beer bottle made in England for the South African Breweries. I have found bottle’s of this kind made in England in the 1890, the SA Breweries only started in 1895 ???

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