Friday, 20 September 2013

Bottling in 1914 - stoppers

I never realised just how fascinating a topic bottling was. What did I use to write about?

It's hard to remember, in a world dominated by crown corks, how just 100 years ago there were competing methods, and conflicting opinions, about the best way to seal bottles. The victory of the crown cork wasn't imagined back then.

Here's what Hadley said later in the article about stoppers:

"The screw stopper is still in general use in this country, and much as we may object to it on hygienic grounds I must say I think it will never be superseded for flagons, it is so readily replaced and the beer kept in condition for further use. I have been trying for some time to obtain a stopper which has all the advantages of the existing stopper while removing its defects; the samples I have to show you are the best efforts I have been able to produce up to the present—being solid rubber it is unbreakable, there is no joint to conceal micro-organisms, and it makes a good joint. The one great drawback at present is the cost.

The crown cork seems to be gaining ground for half pints, but having had no personal experience with it I am not prepared to say whether it is a success or not. With me the principal demand, after stoppers, is for corked half-pints, and take it all round there is nothing to beat a corked bottle beer — provided the cork is steamed and washed in a revolving wire drum to remove all dust and to soften and sterilise it. A certain corky flavour is very rarely imparted to beer by cork which is diseased by mould, but this too may be removed by well steaming."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, page 516.

By screw stopper, he means bottles with an internal screw thread in the neck of the bottle into which the stopper screwed. This type of stopper did cling on a remarkably long time. I can remember the off-licence opposite where I lived in Leeds in the late 1970's having Whitbread beer in quart bottles of this type.

It's odd for us to read of the author's enthusiasm for real corks over crown corks. I doubt you could find a brewer today that preferred unreliable, porous, expensive corks. My experience of corked bottles of Harvey's Imperial Stout tells me that a crown cork is a far more reliable stopper, especially for long-term storage.

The topic of stoppers came up in the discussion after the paper had been presented. Mr. W. R. Wilson reckoned:

"The trade of his (the speaker's) firm was very largely in half-pints. The author seemed rather to lean to the cork for half-pints. Personally he much preferred the crown corks. With corks there was always a difficulty in regard to stout in the summer. If the weather got very hot they wanted a larger cork, and then, as soon as that was provided, the weather turned cool, and they found that the cork had become a little too tight. Again, the customers complained that the corks were difficult to draw. In the Midlands, at all events, the crown cork appeared to be making great headway, and he could not help thinking that, as far as the half-pints were concerned, it would not be very long before the crown cork would supersede both the ordinary cork and the screw stopper."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, page 526.

Now isn't that stuff about different-sized corks in summer interesting? A real cork seems a very expensive way of sealing half pint bottles - no wonder crown corks were gaining ground.

Mr. Robert D. Clarke agreed that crown corks were the way forward:

"He believed that the crown cork would prove to be the cork of the future. It imparted no taste, and being soaked in paraffin it was absolutely clean and satisfactory. He had practically scrapped the whole of his ordinary cork bottles, and was using nothing but crowns and porcelain stoppers."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, pages 526 - 527.

Mr. F. M. Maynard was a fan of the Grolsch-style porcelain stoppers:

"Personally, he strongly objected to the screw stopper on hygienic grounds; and although crown corks might be satisfactory in the public-house, where they were accustomed to drawing them, they were not so suitable for private trade. The stopper he favoured, and which he found other brewers were also adopting, was the Continental porcelain spring stopper. It was absolutely clean, it was washed with the bottle, and did not get lost, being attached to the bottle. He considered it the most successful stopper he had ever used, especially for the private trade, since the same stopper was also largely employed for sterilised milk bottles."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, page 529.

Is he saying there that people couldn't work out how to open a bottle sealed with a crown cork? Surely that's much simpler than drawing a cork? I can open a crown-corked bottle without a bottle opener, but I doubt very much that I could remove a cork without a corkscrew.

Customers in the author's region, the West Country, still wanted corks:

"If the Midland brewers had only half-pints to deal with, they were very fortunate indeed, because the half-pint was really the most profitable size. The flagons were run at a very fine margin indeed. With regard to the question of corks, they were demanded in the West of England by the public, who would, in fact, have nothing else. They might find the crown cork in a few of the free houses ; but 90 per cent, of the half-pint trade was served in corked bottles."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, page 530.

The author also had a big objection to Grolsch-type stoppers - they got caught in the bottle washing machines:

"As to the spring stopper, he could not see where the advantage of that came in, because it had an ordinary india-rubber ring. He had tried them and given them up, the reason being that they seized on the brush-heads and the operators were continually cutting their thumbs."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 20, Issue 6, November-December 1914, page 533.

I wonder how they get around this problem? They must do, as you wouldn't find a mass-produced beer like Grolsch using porcelain stoppers.

Next time it's the turn of the bottling process itself. Sound like fun? No? You miserable bastard.


Pivní Filosof said...

Bernard, though unlikely to be produced at the same scale as Grolsch, has been selling beer with a swing top cap for about 10 years. If I remember correctly, it started as a one-off.

They (and also Chodovar) have a bottling line specially for these sort of containers.

Gary Gillman said...

That is very interesting indeed. There are mentions in earlier literature of the need to soak corks in strong alcohol after a good cleaning. One can see how this would probably have a kind of sterilizing effect.

This current writer is certainly right about cork taint, and it is interesting that the problem was identified so accurately so long ago. The source is a fungal growth in the bark which is the origin of the cork. It is very rare but undoubtedly occurs, I've seen it in bourbon whiskey a couple of times where it imparts a stale, burning taste to the liquor.

Interesting too his reference to paraffin, what can that mean exactly? Perhaps it was a light coating to avoid rusting, in those days of pre-aluminum (or should I say aluminium? Do people still say lorries vs. truck in England and tyres vs. tires...?). But here is (IMO) an intriguing thought: could it have been an early way to have the cork underside absorb oxygen, as you see done today with the clear thin plastic-like coating applied underneath many crown corks?


Phil said...

I can open a crown-corked bottle without a bottle opener

You can? That's quite a feat. I know some crown-corked bottles are advertised as screwtops, but you need to be wearing gardening gloves to do the actual cap-twisting.

Hobec, or something marketed in the UK in the late 80s under the name of Hobec, used a screw stopper; I think it was made of vulcanised rubber, or else a bakelite-ish hard plastic. Never seen a screw stopper in a bottle before or since.

Gary - the word 'truck' is good British English, it's just that we also (and more generally) call them 'lorries'. Definitely 'aluminium' and 'tyre'. Loads of Americanisms continuing to creep in, mind you - in the previous paragraph I had to remind myself to say 'screw-top' and not 'twist-off cap'.

Ron Pattinson said...


I've done it in the past. I was taught one technique - using the window of a train - by Czechs. They have loads of ways of opening a beer bottle without an opener. A lighter can be used, too. Or pretty much any hard edge - like the metal rim soom train tables have.

Gary Gillman said...

Ah, that's good Phil. Some things shouldn't change.