From house party kegs to tallboys at summer braais, beer comes in different packages for different occasions – but not all packaging is created equal. Kegs can spoil in a matter of days, and cans tend to lend a metallic tinge to their contents. As such, there are only two options for an unadulterated tipple for the discerning drinker: a fresh draught from a reputable taphouse or, the much more convenient option, a good old-fashioned glass bottle.
The bottle hasn’t been a reliable choice, but it sure was a more portable option than wooden casks, which were the only way to store beer until the 16th century. Around that time, rich Europeans and Americans took to decanting their casks into handmade dark glass bottles – the darker the glass, the better it protects the beer from light spoilage. These bottles were fragile, however, and they soon found out that storing beer in this way makes it undergo a secondary process of fermentation, changing its flavour and carbonation.
Some got around the fragility problem by storing their beer in stone bottles, but these were cumbersome and didn’t stop beer from over-fermenting. Bottles therefore remained relatively rare until pasteurisation and industrialisation made bottled beer a more consistent (and less volatile) product in the late 19th century.
Inter-regional beer distribution became feasible for the first time, and breweries’ increasing filtering and chilling of their beers eventually created the commercial standard of a clear, unsedimented product that continues today in the world’s best-selling lagers. Some breweries still refuse to pasteurise or filter their beers though, creating more flavourful (but less consistent) bottled brews.
The rise of industrial brewing in the 20th century caused the proliferation of beer megabrands, like Budweiser and Carling, packaged in standardised long-neck bottles worldwide. But in light of the increasing use as beer bottles as weapons, some breweries are introducing short-necked bottles that are decidedly more difficult to smash over someone’s head.
The innovation hasn’t stopped there, however – not by a long shot. Last year, Scottish brewers Brewdog decided to package their End of History brew – both the most alcoholic (55% a.b.v.) and most expensive beer (R9 200 a bottle) ever made – in the glass-lined bodies of taxidermied squirrels. Now they’re looking at using deer as draught taps.
On second thought, perhaps innovation isn’t always a good thing.
This article was originally written for GQ.co.za (http://www.gq.co.za/entertainment/634816.html), hence my usual shift in tone and style.
This weekend my housemate James went to the shops. Not such a special occurrence, no, but this Saturday James had a little art project in mind.
He came back with some wire and a bit of a giddy smile. Waltzing through the house with some needle-nose pliers, he gathered the forty or so different beer bottles we had lying on desks and on shelves, and started making some bottle hooks. After an hour, we had just under thirty different beer bottles hanging on our living room’s picture rail.
I suppose it’s a bit of a step from that student digs tendency to put every empty bottle of Black Horse gin/vodka/cane/whiskey/strawberry liqueur on top of their fridge or on the kitchen shelves where ornaments and heirlooms are supposed to sit. I like to think this is slightly more classy than that. Plus, (most of) the bottles look quite nice and it does spruce up what was a barren white wall. Lining up the imported beers against the local beers, however, you can see South African craft brewers still have a bit to learn with regard to label design. (Well, in my opinion at least. I think I’m part of the 1% who really cares about what beers look like.)
Once this week of work is done (including my 20 000 word thesis and two more 5000 and 2000 word papers due in a week’s time), I think I’ll be adding a lot more bottles to that picture rail. A lot more bottles.