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The Evolution of Beer Packaging
Draft, bottle or can? Each person has his/her own preference when it comes to enjoying a brew, and each of these beer packages has its own unique history.
Draft Beer was First
Draft (or draught) was the first method of getting beer from the brewer to the beer drinker. In fact, draft beer has been available in kegs for several hundred years. Early on, beer kegs were wooden barrels made by artisans called “coopers.” The barrels they made were large, bulky and much heavier than today’s stainless steel, aluminum or polyethylene kegs, but for the times they allowed large amounts of beer to be transported to local pubs and on ships across oceans.
The first method of draining beer from a keg was very simple. It relied on gravity and air. Then in 1785, a beer engine (a pump) was developed in England that gave bar tenders the ability to draw beer from a keg located in the basement of a pub up to the bar on the first floor.
Wooden kegs remained the mainstay of draft beer containers until the early 20th century when brewers began using carbon dioxide pressured steel kegs. Despite the new system, wooden kegs remained in use for a time, and Clevie Buck, an old time Maryland beer salesman, used to tell the story about making deliveries of draft beer in wooden barrels to the bars in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland in the early 1940s.
Throughout the years there have been several iterations of kegs and keg tapping systems including the old rod system in which a tapping rod was thrust downward through a cork bung to the bottom of the keg. It was important for the “tapper” to be quick when tightening the handle around the rod or risk seeing the rod, which was under pressure, shoot upward toward the ceiling. Once steel and then aluminum became the norm newer tapping methods became safer and easier to use. Later methods included a two part tap and vent system that was widely used by Anheuser-Busch and other brewers for many years. This workable system was replaced in the 1980s by a system called Tri Tap (meaning simple, safe and clean). Other popular systems of the day were those made by Sankey and Hoff Stevens. Today, there are six major US and foreign tapping systems prosaically known as System D, S, H, M, G and D. They vary slightly in how they look, but the method of tapping and venting is about the same. All of them allow for quality pours and little waste of product. The objective of most modern draft systems is to deliver a measured amount of beer, with a proper head of foam, in the shortest time possible with no waste.
Beer in Bottles
Glass bottles in one shape, form or color have been used to contain beer for the last 400+ years. In the earliest days, bottles were made of clay. Today, they are made mostly of clear, blue, green or brown glass, and in limited cases, they are made of plastic. Each can do the job of containing beer, but brown glass does it the best. That is because brown glass is best at screening out harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays which, along with heat and dirt, are the major causes of beer spoilage. Light struck beer is distinctive because it smells like skunk.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that both glass bottles and bottle closures came into their own. In 1870 Henry Barrett, an Englishman, invented the screw cap (Martyn Cornell in a “Short History of Bottled Beer”). For the first time, a partially consumed bottle of beer could be resealed reliably. At about the same time and across the English Channel, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered a process that would preserve and prolong the shelf life of bottled beer through a technique known as pasteurization.
After the two World Wars, sales of bottled beer really took off. During the war years, bottles of all description were in short supply, but thereafter, beer to take home and enjoy after work brought in an entirely new group of beer drinkers and a new level of beer consumption. At the end of the day, workers, rather than spend after work hours in taverns, could go home be with their families and enjoy a cold beer in the comfort in their own surroundings.
It seems likely that sales of beer in plastic bottles will become more commonplace in the future as manufacturers develop a coating that solves the problem of carbon dioxide leaving the bottle and beer spoiling oxygen coming into the bottle. The economics of shipping costs, packaging material cost and energy saved in recycling will outweigh the negative image of beer in plastic. There is little doubt that beer in plastic bottles will play an increasingly significant role in the future.
Beer in Cans
In 1933, near the end of Prohibition, the American Can Company successfully solved two difficult technical issues with the use of steel cans. A can liner was invented to keep the steel in the can from interacting with the beer and spoiling its taste. Also, the cans were now made sufficiently rigid to withstand an increase in the internal pressure when the cans were run through a pasteurizer. Once these problems were solved, cans provided beer with a whole host of new possibilities for use and consumption.
The Gottfried-Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ was first to take a chance that consumers would accept their beer in a steel can, and became the first brewer to package and market its beer in container other than a bottle. Both the Pabst and the Schlitz Brewing Companies soon followed suit.
Krueger and Pabst settled on a flat top steel can opener, while Schlitz introduced its beer in a new high cone steel can. Other breweries quickly followed until the use of cans was interrupted by the United States entry into World War II. During the war, due to a shortage of steel, all production of canned beer was shipped to the troops overseas in specialyl decorated cans. Later on, many of these cans became collector items because of their unique olive drab and black paint schemes.
Many readers may not remember the most important beverage tool ever invented. It was the ubiquitous “church key” or combination can and bottle opener. If you are old enough to remember when beer (and soda) came in steel rather than aluminum cans, you know the surest way to get a beverage out of the can was to use as a “church key”. In the 1950s and early 1960s, this handy tool was given free of charge to consumers when they purchased a six pack of cans, stubby bottles or beer in quart bottles. This was an era before twist off caps were available. In addition, the openers proved to be a handy advertising gimmick for beer companies as their company and brand name was engraved on the openers. Back then, these openers were provided to retailers for free by their local beer distributors which was contrary to federal law. Likely, members of the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms) didn’t complain as they too needed to use them to open their beer.
In 1958, The Hawaii Brewery, makers of the Primo beer, introduced their flagship brand in aluminum cans. The much lighter aluminum cans quickly gained favor within the distribution chain and by consumers as well. The original aluminum cans featured a pull off “tab top” opener. Shortly thereafter, Coors introduced a push button opener, but in 1975 the Falls Brewery began to use a “Sta-Tab” feature whose basic idea is still in use today, (Bryce Eddings in “A Brief History of the American Beer Can”).
From flat top can to high cone can, the most recent version of the beer can is actually in the shape of a long neck aluminum bottle. Initially, there were some initial availability issues, when one major brewer bought all of the bottle manufacturer’s production capacity. Since then, beer in aluminum bottles has gained popularity with consumers year after year. The package is good looking, its closure is re-sealable and it keeps the beer cold longer.
In 1969, canned beer became more popular than bottled beer, and today canned beer is still the most popular method of packaging beer. While the gap in sales between cans and bottles began to narrow in the 1990s, the gap has since widened in recent years as many popular craft beers are now available in cans.
Draft, Bottle or Cans … The Future
While tapping systems will most likely continue to evolve, there is little talk of change in aluminum kegs. For bottles and cans though, change and consumer preference is always in the wind.
Will aluminum bottles be the last of the line of the materials used in beer packaging? It is safe to say the answer to the question is probably not. In all likelihood container manufacturers will continue to look for lighter, cheaper and biodegradable containers. At some point, technical problems inherent with plastic bottles will be solved. But a longer term solution may lie in the use of a lined cellulose container. Why not use bamboo? It is cheap, light weight, recyclable and renewable. As they say, “Time will tell.”