The Risky Business of Exporting Beer in the 19th century.

During excavations under the floor of a house in Akaroa, we found a large assemblage of labelled bottles. Labelled bottles are always an exciting find, firstly because they tell us what the bottle held at the time of its disposal, and secondly, because they’re not very common (paper doesn’t survive well when it’s buried in the earth for over 100 years). At our site in Akaroa we found over 30 bottle labels, making it one of the largest assemblages of labelled bottles we’ve recovered. These bottle labels were mostly for alcoholic products, typically beer, and were found on bottle types normally associated with alcohol, such as ring seal bottles and spirits bottles. Over the next few blog posts we’re going to focus on this assemblage of labelled bottles and explore the stories they were able to tell- starting with the risky business of exporting beer in the 19th century.

One of the many labelled bottles we found under the floor. Image: C. Watson.

You might have noticed the bottle pictured above has two labels (there’s also a third on the back). That’s because the beer contained in this bottle was imported from Britain. Whilst the British export beer market was not a large one, only 3% of British manufactured beer was exported in the 19th century, it was far-reaching with beer exported globally (Hughes 2006: 85). The bottom label- the Guinness one- is for the manufacturer of the beer. The top one- for Robert Porter and Co.- is for the bottler of beer. Bottling companies would purchase beer from the brewer, bottle it and then export it to different countries. We found bottle labels for two brands of British and Irish beers: the infamous Irish brand Guinness and the English Bass & Co.

 

Still famous today, Guinness’s history dates back to the 18th century when Arthur Guinness signed a lease for the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin in 1759 (Guinness Storehouse 2019). At the beginning of his career Arthur Guinness was not brewing the dark stout we associate with Guinness today, but instead was making ale. From the 1770s onwards Guinness began brewing porter, with much success, and in 1799 they stopped brewing ale and instead focussed solely on porter and stout (Hughes 2006: 21). Porter kept longer than ale, making it ideal for the export market. Guinness began with exporting their stout to England and over the course of the 19th century expanded globally. Guinness did not bottle their beer, instead they exported in bulk hogsheads, barrels and half barrels to bottling companies, who were responsible for the bottling, export and sale to the consumer (Hughes 2006: 21). The success of Guinness is apparent, with the brand still in operation today. Image: C. Watson.

Whilst the Guinness brand focused on dark beers, the Bass and Co. brand was synonymous with pale ales. William Bass founded the brewery, based in Burton-on-Trent, in 1777 (Holl 2019). The brand had immediate success, and was exporting ale to Russia by 1784 and North America by 1799 (Holl 2019). This success continued until the 1880s, after which time they saw a drop in sales in export markets, as an increase in colonial brewing operations meant locally produced beer was more readily available and affordable than imported beers (Hughes 2006: 90). Bass ale continues to be brewed today, although the company itself has seen a variety of sales, mergers, more sales and more mergers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Image: C. Watson.

Guinness and Bass & Co. were the two big brands in the world of 19th century export brewing. For most British (and Irish) breweries, the demand of the internal market combined with the risk of the export market meant there was little desire to export. Exporting beer was a risky market. Beer has a shelf-life, and factors such as the long-shipping times, unpredictable weather conditions and potential for contamination meant it was common for beer to spoil. Breweries did what they could to alleviate these issues. Only beers with a long shelf-life and high quality were exported, and Bass & Co. even restricted the months in which their beers could be bottled and shipped to try and prevent spoiling (Hughes 2006: 93).

For the most part though, brewers avoided the losses associated with the export market by not bottling beers themselves. Instead, they sold their beer in bulk to bottling firms. These bottling firms were responsible for bottling the beer, shipping it overseas, and selling it to retailers, and as-such took on all the risks involved with that process. They were often ordering beer from the brewer for export a year in advance, meaning overstocking and spoilage was common, with these problems further compounded by delays in shipping and even shipwrecks. To make up for this, export beer was sold at a high price. There was no set price, as different bottling companies selling the same product competed in the same markets, but it was higher than locally produced beers, with bottlers targeting well-to-do people (Hughes 2006: 88). Whilst we only found two brands of export beer, Guinness and Bass, we found labels for a variety of export bottlers.

Robert Porter and Co. bottled both Guinness and Bass Ale. The London based firm was founded in 1848 by Robert Porter and was well known for their Bull Dog brand (proving that doggos are always a popular marketing technique; Yenne 2007). They traded across the world and won medals for their bottled beer in Melbourne in 1880, in Adelaide in 1881 and in Calcutta in 1883 (Hughes 2006: 119). In 1950 the company was amalgamated. The bottles found at the site showed that as well as having their name in the beer brand label, they also labelled bottles with their bulldog brand, and in some cases with a label boasting of their award wins. Image: C. Watson.  

John Walter Read, originally an associate in Robert Porter and Co., set up the Read Brothers with William Thomas in 1871. The firm was based next door to Robert Porter and Co., and the use of the Bull Dog Head brand shows great similarities to Robert Porter and Co.’s bulldog brand (lots of good doggos in the export bottling world). The firm produced 50,000 bottles a week in the late 19th century and by 1906 were the largest buyers and bottlers of Bass Ale in the world (Hughes 2006: 121). Read and Porter eventually amalgamated to form the Export Bottlers Ltd in 1939 (Hughes 2006: 122). Image: C. Watson.

Unlike the previous two bottling firms, Daukes was never a major player in the export bottling business (probably the lack of doggos in their branding), with most of their business focused on the home market. The company was based in London and in operation from around 1864 to the 1920s (Hughes 2006: 138, 288). This label features the Ship brand, which was used from 1902 onwards (Hughes 2006: 138). Image: C. Watson.

The British export beer market peaked in 1859 at 614,000s barrels exported (that’s approximately 100,696,000 litres!). The decline was due to a myriad of reasons, one of which was increased competition with local brewers who could under-cut the price of export beer. New Zealand brewers differed to British export brewers in that they both brewed and bottled their own beer, as is evident in their bottle labels.

The Crown Brewery Company was located on the corner of Antigua and St. Asaph Streets in Christchurch and was first established in 1855 by William May (Donaldson et al 1990:221). However, the name Crown Brewery Co. was not used until William White took over the business in 1875, with the Louisson Brothers acquiring the brewery the following year (Cylcopedia Company Limited 1903:290). By the start of the 20th century, the company was capable of producing up to 50 hogsheads a day and were responsible for bottling their own beer. Image: C. Watson

Manning and Co. were another Christchurch brewery, established in 1860 by Samuel Manning (Donaldson et al 1990: 246). Manning established the brewery when he was only 19 years of age, having learnt the brewing trade by working alongside his father at the Suffolk Brewery in Barbadoes Street. The company brewed and bottled their own beer and were in operation until 1923, although Manning left the firm in 1889 (Donaldson et al. 1990: 246). Image: C. Watson.

McGavin and Co.’s Union Brewery was established in 1882 by George McGavin, Alexander McGregor and W H. Smith (Cyclopedia Company Ltd 1905:292). Their factory was located on the corner of Duke and Great King Streets, Dunedin, and the firm both brewed and bottled beer.

One of the most interesting things about the assemblage of labelled bottles was the variety of different brands and exporters present. It showed that the occupants of the house were consuming beer brewed in Christchurch, Dunedin, England and Ireland, and that there seems to have been no great preference for one type over another. Whilst we know from newspaper advertisements of the time that consumers had a wide range of products available to them, it is only when we find assemblages such as this that we can actually see what consumers were choosing to purchase, and from there begin to try and understand why they were purchasing the brands they were.

Fun fact to end the blog on (because I couldn’t find anywhere else to fit it in), the world record for drinking a pint of beer is 0.45 seconds, and 6 seconds for drinking it upside down (Record Holders Republic 2020)

Clara Watson

References

Cyclopedia Company Ltd. 1905. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts]. The Cyclopedia Company of New Zealand.

Cylcopedia Company Limited. 1903. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District]. The Cyclopedia Company of New Zealand.

Donaldson, B., G. Hume, and S. Costello. 1990. Antique Bottles and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch: Antique Bottle and Collectables Club.

Guinness Storehouse. 2019. Archive Fact Sheet: The History of Guinness The 18 Th Century and Arthur Guinness. Available: https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/content/pdf/archive-factsheets/general-history/arthur-guinness.pdf

Holl, J. 2019. Bass & Company | Craft Beer & Brewing. Available: https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/28hc1iTi5P/

Hughes, D. 2006. A Bottle of Guinness Please The Colourful History of Guiness. Berkshire: Phimboy.

Record Holders Republic. 2020. World Record Holders and Breakers – Peter Dowdeswell. Available: http://www.recordholdersrepublic.co.uk/world-record-holders/131/peter-dowdeswell.aspx

Yenne, B. 2007. Guinness. The 250-Year Quest for the Perfect Pint. New Jersey: John Willey & Sons.

 

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