Thursday, 3 December 2015

Beer Bottlers

It may sound odd, but once there was a whole industry dedicated to bottling beer. Companies who didn’t brew themselves, just packaged beer.

The roots of this system lay in how bottling had developed. The first bottlers were independent companies who bought beer by the hogshead and packaged it by hand. Initially, brewers themselves had no bottling facilities. By the early 20th century most breweries of any size did have a bottling department, but many still sold beer to third parties for bottling. A brewery would package itself for its own on-trade, but bottling for third parties and the free trade were often performed by external parties.

“Until the late 1950s there were many beer bottling firms, companies and co-operative associations, which purchased their bulk supplies from the brewers and bottled them up, selling them into the retail trade as wholesalers of a variety of alcoholic and soft drinks. They had established themselves in the early days of bottled beer and had assumed the role of distributors of a company's beer on a regional or national scale. The most prominent of the big brewery companies using this system of selling their products were Bass, Worthington, and Guinness; they devised arrangements with local beer bottlers to control the format of the labels on the bottles, the quality of the bottling process, and the pricing structures. Such system worked very well for many years, say from the 1870s to the 1950s, and relieved those companies from the burden of setting up and running sales forces and depots. These bottling companies were an integral part of the success of Bass and the others, and their voices had to be heard and their views respected; in their field they were powerful. But as the brewery industry consolidated after the Second World War and gained its own expertise in the bottling process, the big companies took over their own bottling and distribution; by the 1970s the independent beer bottlers had just about vanished. It is necessary to bear this history in mind when reading about beer bottlers' associations and their activities.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 127.

It’s true that Bass, Worthington and Guinness had profited from the work of bottlers. But they weren’t the only ones. I’ve labels from Barclay Perkins that indicate they were bottled in Scotland. It was the way larger brewers got some sort of national distribution.

Musgrave & Sagar, an independent bottler in Leeds lasted until at least the 1980’s. Though they only bottled Guinness, as I recall.

As with many trade associations in the past, the main role of the National Beer Bottlers Association appeared to be price fixing. Not something you could openly do today. Though plenty of it still seems to go on behind the scenes.

“All the leading beer bottling companies belonged to the National Beer Bottlers Association, formed between the wars to represent its members' interests, to act as a forum for dealing with common problems, and with increasing urgency to combat price cutting in the beer bottling and wholesaling trades; not only was it a trade body to handle internal trade problems, it had to be political in order to meet the brewing industry's influence at Westminster.

I first knew of it in the 1950s when I was deputised to attend its twice yearly meetings in Manchester, in a room at the Midland Hotel. Its aim was to ensure fair trade for its members, which, taking the big ones and the small ones together, meant price fixing and restricting trade in various ways. Everybody turned up for the meetings, always after a good lunch, not in the expectation of achieving anything, but in the fear or hope of learning something new. Invariably all declared they were a waste of time because resolutions passed were ignored; but they attended just in case a revelation might occur. Passion and illogicality of thought were the order of the day in unending speeches. Cecil Frederick Pike, the Member of Parliament for the Attercliffe division of Sheffield between the wars, was the secretary of the association, and he made the fieriest of all the speeches - about decent fair play, the vital necessity for all members to observe the association's rules, and for them to act in the spirit of one for all and all for one; and lastly, heavy penalties for infringers.”
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, pages 127 - 128.

What happened to the association? It disappeared with the independent bottlers.

“As for the association, it just faded away in the late 1960s; it was fun though while it lasted.
"The Brewing Industry 1950 - 1990", by Anthony Avis, 1997, page 128.


Ed said...

Independent bottlers are on the up again now.

Anonymous said...

I think there must be a lot of new small breweries having their beers bottled for them. My local brewery always used to send beer to Thirsk for bottling and probably still do.Probably more cost efficient than doing it at the brewery and probably done better too,