The True Bottling of Beer

Lord Corwin of Darkwater
(reprinted from Scum #9)

A keg of beer is a wondrous sight indeed, but somewhat impractical if you think about it. The modern six-pack is so much more convenient (and fits so well in those Coleman thingies you see at the War). How can a proper Medievalist reconcile these two worlds, seemingly at odds with one another?

Fortunately, bottled beer is (just barely) found within the period in history whose ideals we seek to emulate. The earliest beer bottles were undoubtedly made of leather. A cheap and workable medium, leather made excellent bottles - as long as you weren't planing on long-term storage. For that, you still had to rely on the trusty keg. Still, the use of leather for containing beverages was widespread, and gave rise to some terms that survive to this day, such as bootlegger.

came good men of the mistery of bottlemakers before the Mayor and Aldermen, and prayed that two or three of the better sort of the said mistery might be elected to rule the mistery and present those found making defective bottles. Their prayer granted and ordinance made.that every bottlemaker shall place his mark on bottles and other vessels made of leather in order that his work may be identified.

London Letter Book G, 1373

But all bottles were not created equal. Although initially rare and quite expensive, bottles made of pale green Roman glass, waldglas from the forests of Germany, and Venetian glass were becoming more readily available by the 15th century. Stoneware bottles were also in use, and as the skill of the bottlemakers improved, the bottles were used more frequently to store potable beverages. By the early 17th century, the practice of putting mature beer in bottles was well established.

The true bottling of beer.

When your Beer is 10 or 12 dayes olde, whereby it is growne reasonable cleare, then bottle it, making your corkes very fit for the bottle, and stoppe them close: but drinke not of this beer, till they begin to work againe, and mantle, and then you shall find the same most excellent and spritely drinke: and this is the reason why bottle ale is both so windy and muddy, thundering and smoking upon the opening of the bottle, because it is commonly bottled the same day that it is laid into the cellar; whereby his yeast, being an exceeding windy substance, being also drawn with the Ale not yet fined, doth incorporate with the drinke, and maketh it also very windy: and this is all the lime and gunpowder wherewith bottle ale hath beene a long time so wrongfully charged.

Hugh Plat, Delights for Ladies, 1609

The use of corks to stopper the beer bottles, which were bulbous little things, was apparently common, as Plat, Markham, and Digby all mention the practice.

Brewing of bottle ale.

Touching the brewing of bottle ale, it differeth nothing at all from the brewing of strong ale, only it must be drawn in a larger proportion, as at least twenty gallons of half a quarter; and when it comes to be changed you shall blink it (as was before showed) more by much than was the strong ale, for it must be pretty and sharp, which giveth the life and quickness to the ale: and when you tun it, you shall put it into round bottles with narrow mouths, and then stopping them close with cork, set them in a cold cellar up to the waist in sand, and be sure that the corks be fast tied in with strong pack-thread, for fear of rising out, or taking vent, which is the utter spoil of the ale.

Gervase Markham, The English Hus-wife, 1615

Beer kept in bottles was quick or carbonated (hence the need to secure the corks, which were not so snug as to hold themselves in place), and had a tendency to keep longer than beer kept in keg. Meads and ciders were also kept in bottle for extended periods (according to Digby).

Mr. Webbes Meath

When it hath wrought, and is well settled (which may be in about two months or ten weeks) draw it into Glass-bottles, as long as it comes clear; and it will be ready to drink in a Month or two: but will keep much longer, if you have occasion: and no dregs will be in the bottom of the bottle.

Sir Paul Neale's way of Making Cider

When it is clear enough draw it into bottles, filling them within two fingers, which stop close. After two or three days visit them; that if there be a danger of their working (which would break the bottles) you may take out the stopples, and let them stand open for half a quarter of an hour. Then stop them close, and they are secure for ever after. In cold freezing, set them upon Hay, and cover them over with Hay or Straw. In open weather in Winter transpose them to another part of the Cellar to stand upon the bare ground or pavement. In hot weather set them in sand.

Doctor Harvey's Pleasant Water-cider, .

Then skim off the yest clean, and put it into bottles, and let it stand two or three days, till the yest fall dead at the top: Then take it off clean with a knife, and fill it up a little within the neck (that is to say, that a little about a fingers breadth of the neck be empty, between the superficies of the Liquor, and the bottom of the stopple) and then stop them up and tye them, or else it will drive out the Corks. Within a fortnight you may drink of it. It will keep five or six weeks.

Sir Kenelme Digby, The closet of ., London: 1669

Still, there were detractors then as now, promoting the perceived virtues of keg beer over bottled beer. To this day, the issue has not been definitively settled.

It is a great custom and general fashion nowadays to bottle ale; but the same was never invented by any true naturalist that understood the inside of things. For though ale be never so well wrought or fermented in the barrel, yet the bottling of it puts it on a new motion or fermentation, which wounds the pure spirits and . body; therefore such ale out of bottles will drink more cold and brisk, but not so sweet and mild as the same ale out of a cask, that is of a proper age: besides the bottle tinges or gives it a cold hard quality, which is the nature of glass and stone, and being the quantity is so small, the cold Saturnine nature of the bottle has the greater power to tincture the liquor with its quality. Furthermore, all such bottle drinks are infected with a yeasty furious foaming matter which no barrel-ale is guilty of ... for which reasons bottle ale or beer is not so good or wholesome as that drawn out of the barrel or hogshead; and the chief thing that can be said for bottle-ale or beer, is that it will keep longer than that in barrels, which is caused by its being kept, as it were, in continued motion or fermentation.

Thomas Tryon, 1691

Well, everyone's entitled to their opinion. If your opinion happens to favor the portable potable, then walk with pride into the feast hall, uncork your bottle-ale, and enjoy!


Douglas Ash, Dictionary of British Antique Glass, London: Pelham Books, 1975

Michael R. Best, ed., Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986

H. S. Corran, A History of Brewing, London: David & Charles, 1975

Dereck C. Davis & Keith Middlemas, Colored Glass, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1968

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