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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.