Saturday, 5 February 2011

Bottling Bass and Guinness in 1869

Thanks to Martyn Cornell for this text. When he's not angrying up the blood of übergeeks, he often passes on material.

I know some of you have been intrigued by the way beer was bottled in the 19th century. In particular, how much of it was performed by third parties. This explains that a little.

My apologies about the format. It's from the time before the invention of paragraphs.


The popularity of British beer is so generalised and well-founded, and the quantity of the national beverage consumed and exported so enormous, that some details in reference to the mode of distributing it may not be  without interest. Few who thoroughly appreciate good  beer (and what Englishman at home or abroad does not?) have any idea of the nature and variety of the various processes through which it has to pass after it leaves the brewery in Burton-upon-Treat, Dublin, or elsewhere, and before it finds its way to the dinner-table. We all know that "Bass" and "Guinness" are to be had everywhere at a moment's notice; but to produce the veritable Double X and the inimitable Pale Ale or "Burton" in perfection requires vast resources, elaborate machinery, and a thorough knowledge of the whole art and mystery of dealing with the beverage after it has left the manufactory of the wholesale dealer and is deposited in the warehouse of the beer merchant. For many years the consumption of bottled beer has been so considerable that persons of large capital have undertaken its exclusive sale. The brewer, whether in Staffordshire or in Dublin, delivers the manufactured article free to the wholesale dealer in the metropolis. Of the latter class there are several who may be regarded as the great constituents of the brewer. Messrs. M. B. Faster and Sons, of Brook-street, Grosvenor-square. are the largest distributors of beer in the world. They have a railway warehouse at Agar Town, at which the beer is received in the first instance direct from the waggons of the Midland Company. Their cellars and stores are in the Marylebone-road and in Westmoreland-street. At the former place casks intended for bottling are chiefly stored, and here are carried on by machinery the washing and corking of the bottles. The superficial area devoted to storing, bottling, and packing is about 30,000 square feet, or nearly an acre and a half. The ale and beer are stored in casks (chiefly hogsheads) on the basement, and here each brewing is daily watched until it arrives at the condition desirable for bottling. The temperature of the cellar ranges from 55 deg. to 62 deg., at which standard it was maintained during the intense heat of last summer. The ale remains in cask for a period of several months, after which it is bottled. Ale intended for a warm climate is kept longer in wood than that destined for home consumption. The January brewing, for instance, is not bottled until the following October; but should it be required for export to the tropics, it is kept in cask for a full twelvemonth or even more. The pale ale exported to Paris and other continental capitals is of the same description as that bottled for home use. The ale when bottled is corked by machinery, wired by boys, and then packed in tiers one above another, with boards between each, until a stack is formed containing 1,000 dozen. The bottles are placed on end, and neither sawdust nor straw is used. In this condition they remain for two or four months, as the case may be, during which time they are carefully watched and tested until the beverage arrives at the bright, creamy, and effervescent state suitable for consumption. The strong sweet ale known as "Burton No. 1" is exported chiefly to Russia and other cold climates, but the "pale ale" may be said to go everywhere. Enormous quantities of the latter are exported to India, where it commands a much higher price than can be obtained for it here, and costs the consumer from 12s. to 15s. per dozen. The bottled ale is sent in iron-bound packing-cases holding three dozen each, and is prepared for export with as much care as if it were wine of the rarest vintage. The corks are grown and cut in Catalonia, and the bottles (save in cases where "champagnes" are used) are manufactured in Sunderland. They are washed by steam-power, each machine washing and rinsing six bottles at a time. Each bottle is subjected to two operations. The first, by means of a revolving brush working in water impregnated with a cleansing material, removes every impurity, after which the bottle is shifted to another revolving brush supplied with pure spring water, which in a second or two makes the inside as bright and clean as when first blown ; a further movement of the hand places the bottle in a crate or drainer, where it remains until fit for the bottler. The water for the washing-machine is supplied from an artesian well, and no two bottles can be washed in the same water. The washing-machines, with their jets and revolving brushes, are kept in motion by a steam-engine. The regularity and celerity with which the various operations of washing, bottling, wiring, packing, and storing are carried on are astonishing, and a million or two of bottles are filled and moved about, and. eventually distributed to all parts of the globe, without a single hitch in the machinery. Ale and stout are not, however, treated in a similar manner when first bottled. The latter, when bottled, is laid on its side and packed away in enormous bins holding about 1,000 dozen each. Here it remains until the beverage is sufficiently matured, after which it is stored like ale. The time at which extra stout ripens in bottle depends upon the particular character of the "brewing," and upon the state of the weather. Of course, in so large an establishment as that of Messrs. Foster and Sons (where they deal at one time with 680 miles of bottles, the contents of some 12,000 hogsheads of beer and ale), considerable loss must arise from "breakages." There are accidents in cleaning, in tilting, in corking, in wiring, in draining, in stacking, in moving, and in packing. Many bottles also "fly" after they have been tiered away or binned, and Messrs. Foster and Sons estimate the average breakages from all causes at 70 dozen per day. The proportion of "empties" broken is, however, greatly in excess of full bottles that burst when put away. Some idea of the magnitude of the beer trade of the metropolis may be gathered from the fact that it is not an unusual circumstance for Bass and Co. to receive from the single firm of Foster and Sons an order for ale to the value of from £50,000 to £70,000. They are the largest customers of Messrs. Bass and Co., as also of Messrs. Guinness and Co., and their label is to be found in every place where beer is drunk, in either hemisphere."The Morning Post", 15h February 1869.

It's clear that large-scale bottling was already mechanised and demanded specialist equipment. "For many years the consumption of bottled beer has been so considerable that persons of large capital have undertaken its exclusive sale." Sounds like some enterprising souls with a bit of dosh saw a market for bottled beer  untapped by brewers. Brewers like Bass and Guinness - whose businesses boomed in the mid-19th century - may have preferred to concentrate on brewing. Especially as bottling seemed to require both large amounts of capital and space.

There are some wonderful details about bottling practice. I knew beers like Pale Ale were aged in the cask before bottling, but I hadn't realised for how long. The article says Pale Ale for domestic consumption was aged 9 months (January to October). I assume the longer maturation time for beer exported to the tropics was to get it as highly attenuated as possible. Funnily enough, I have details of how much the gravity of Pale Ale fell during this secondary conditioning. But I'm saving that for another day. Another two to four months storage after bottling would mean bottled Bass Pale Ale was something like a year old by the time it got into anyone's glass.

It's intriguing that Stout - in this case it seems to be from Guinness - was matured in the bottle rather than in the cask. I wonder why that was?

Also intriguing is the change to exporting beer already bottled. Earlier in the century beer sent to India and been sent in casks and bottled on arrival.

And finally . . . . see how it says precisely what Burton is: Bass No. 1. I already knew that, but I'm so insecure that I love confirmation. Strong, sweet and destined for Russia.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, this source, earlier in the century, suggests stout was aged in wood also for 9 months and then bottled.

Perhaps Guinness needed the barrels back faster, and they had longer to go.


Arctic Alchemy said...

Fantastic find and description here, I would love to find an image of those early bottling lines and fillers. Also the rate of which so many bottles are lost to breakage is remarkable. I am also curious about the export of bottled Burtons prior to the Napoleonic Blockage ( prior to 1803) to the Baltic regions, that period would have been much less mechanized and required much more labor.

Graham Wheeler said...

"It's intriguing that Stout - in this case it seems to be from Guinness - was matured in the bottle rather than in the cask. I wonder why that was?"

That is not what was actually said.

What he said was that stout bottles are laid horizontal for a while after bottling whereas pale ale bottles are stacked right way up.

Maturation takes place in cask, ripening is what takes place in bottle. Apparently, laying bottles on their side speeds the ripening process.

Bass's bottling instructions of 1888 states:
"The bottles should be piled standing upright. Should the ale be sluggish in ripening, the bottles may be laid down; but this is seldom necessary."

So the same process was sometimes applied to pale ale.

That bottled stout was laid on its side as standard practice probably reflects the fact that it was considered very important to completely flatten stout before bottling. It was common practice for regional brewers, such as my one-time local brewery, to pump the contents of their stout vats up to the coolship for flattening before bottling.

I do not have any hard and fast reasons as to why complete flattening was considered so important for stout, but several books, even early 20th century ones, consider it to be a serious fault not to do so.

Of course, laying bottles on their sides exposes a greater surface area of beer to the head space, so the CO2 generated during conditioning will diffuse into the beer faster.

Martyn Cornell said...

Typo alert! "Messrs. M. B. Faster …" that would be Foster. Apart from that - well typed!

Ed said...

Interesting to see that millions of bottles are apparently filled "without a single hitch in the machinery". I've never seen a modern bottling line that good...

Rob Sterowski said...

I assume from the extended storage before sale that the bottles were not primed. That might be a reason for the complete flattening of stout before bottling, because they knew from experience that brettanomyces or whatever would slowly eat up the remaining sugar in the beer and carbonate it. If there was still residual CO2 in the beer the pressure in the bottles would get too high and lead to explosions.