In which bottles are used, beer is drunk, and graphic design atrocities are committed

Over the past two blog posts we’ve been looking at a large assemblage of labelled bottles found under a house in Akaroa. Today on the blog we’re going to take a step back and look at how the bottles travelled from England to New Zealand. It’s something we’ve touched on a little bit already, but today we’re going to really break it down. It’s a little complicated, so to make things simple I’ve created an absolute masterpiece of a diagram to explain things. We’re going to focus specifically on beer exported from England, but a lot of the groups and cycles we’re going to talk about today can be applied to both other types of alcohol and other countries exporting to New Zealand in the 19th century.

Might as well just leave the blog here. A picture says a thousand words, and when it’s one that has had as much thought and graphic design put into it as this, then really it says nothing at all. Image: C. Watson (not that anyone should ever reproduce this monstrosity).

Export Brewer

Export brewers were British breweries that were manufacturing beer to export to the colonies. We already talked about them in our first blog post on the assemblage, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. For those of you who missed that first blog post (you should go back and read it) export brewing was never a large market for British breweries. Exporting beer was a risky business for obvious reasons, only certain types of beer were suitable to be exported, and there was enough demand in the local market that most breweries had no need to look to the export market for business. Two breweries come to dominate the British export market: Guinness and Bass and Co. Bass and Co. exported 30,446 cases of beer to New Zealand, worth £45,417, in 1873 (Hughes 2006: 295).

Bottle Manufacturer

As we’ve mentioned many times before on the blog, there was no successful local bottle manufacturing industry in New Zealand until 1922. Instead, bottles were imported from England and Europe in large numbers, with two million bottles imported in 1873 alone (Tasker 1989: 15). These bottles were manufactured by large glass factories. These factories were literally producing millions of bottles a year. Richard, Cooper and Co. of the Portobello glass works in Scotland were making 6,000,000 a year in 1898. Unfortunately, unless a bottle has a maker’s mark, we generally don’t know which factory made the bottle. If we talk about beer specifically, then most beer in the 19th century was packaged in either black beer or ring seal bottles (see this blog for more information on these specific bottle types).

Export Bottler

The British-based export bottler would purchase beer from the brewer, bottles from the bottle manufacturer, bottle the beer and then export it to the colonies. Again, we talked a bit about this in the first blog, but we’ll still go into more detail here as the bottling companies played such a pivotal role in getting beer from England to New Zealand. Exporting beer was a risky business. The journey from England to New Zealand took well over 100 days and during that time the beer often went off due to shipping delays, temperature and humidity changes and contamination. Unlike the export brewery industry itself, which was essentially a duopoly between Guinness and Bass and Co., the export bottling industry was full of competition with Bass selling beer to over 50 different export bottlers by 1873 (Hughes 2006: 89). These bottling companies all competed with each other in the export market with the same products. The point of difference being, how the product was bottled and shipped, and if it had gone off along the way.

Robert Porter and Co. were one of the many export bottlers shipping beer to New Zealand, and we found several of their labels in our Akaroa assemblage. This 1891 account describes their bottling process. The beer was sent to Porter and Co. in butts of two hogsheads each via the railway, with Porter and Co.’s bottling factory conveniently located at Pancras-road, London, at the terminus of the Midland Railway Company. The beer remained stored in the barrel until it was ready to be bottled.

The first stage in the bottling process was washing the bottle. Whilst new bottles could be used, it was more common for old bottles to be reused and refilled. The 1891 account says that these were most often old champagne bottles (ring seals) and that bottles were imported from the continent for this purpose. The bottle was washed three or four times to remove the past contents, and then stored ready for filling.

Bottles were filled, corked then packed, at a rate of around 1500 dozen a day. A tin foil capsule was placed over the cork and the bottle was labelled with the brewer label and Porter and Co.’s Bulldog label. Bottles were left to stand for a day to make sure they weren’t going to explode, and then were packed, with eight dozen pints in a case and four dozen quarts in a barrel. The packers name was recorded inside the case, which was then loaded back onto a train for transport to the docks and then shipped to New Zealand.

The Agent

The agent was essentially the middleman between the export bottler in England, and the seller in New Zealand (or they were the seller themselves). Typically based in New Zealand, agents ordered stock from exporters and sold it to local hotels, storekeepers and grocers (depending on what the stock was). They could sell stock by auction or sell directly to other businesses and consumers.

A few of the many advertisements for Robert Porter and Co.’s bottled Guinness and Bass and Co. ale. Most advertisements had the brand of alcohol, who bottled it and the agents name (if you think this is complicated wait until we start talking about bottle reuse). Images clockwise from top left: Daily Telegraph 21/07/1899: 1; New Zealand Herald 09/04/1880: 7; Daily Southern Cross 15/11/1865: 7; Otago Daily Times 12/08/1893: 3; Press 16/09/1896: 3; Press 01/11/1894: 4.

The local brewer

Alongside all the imported beer and spirits that were available for purchase, there were also locally manufactured beers. Local breweries had serious advantages over export brewers- namely that their beer didn’t need to be shipped halfway across the world to reach the consumer- but also had to compete with the notion of “British is Best” and the familiarity that Bass and Guinness had in a foreign world. We’ll talk more about local breweries below in the bottle reuse section, for now it’s just important to remember that there were other beers available than Guinness and Bass (unlike spirits which relied on the export market).

Seller and Consumer

Finally we reach the end of the chain. The beer, having been brewed by the manufacturer, bottled by the exporter, sold by the agent, was now available for purchase by the consumer. Consumers could purchase beer direct from the agent, or importer, but most of the general public likely brought their beer from hotels (who in turn would have purchased from the agent).

An 1888 advertisement for the infamous Occidental Hotel, stating the hotel kept only the best brands of wines, spirits and ales in stock. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this blog, the ad doesn’t say specifically which brands were in stock, but they probably included imported Bass and Guinness. Image: Press 25/10/1888: 8.

Joe Dicks was a Sydenham based wine and spirits importer. The above advertisement gives their 1891 prices for Bass and Guinness beers, along with other spirits. If you read the ad, you’ll notice that you could purchase bottled beer, or you could take along an empty bottle and fill it yourself. This brings us to bottle reuse. Image: Press 30/01/1891: 1).

Bottle Reuse

When we think about just the beer, the journey from England to New Zealand is a relatively straightforward one. It’s brewed in England, passes hands through a bunch of different people and companies, and gets drunk in New Zealand. The same cannot be said for the bottle it was contained in. Unlike today, when packaging is so ridiculously cheap that it’s killing the planet, packaging in the 19th century was expensive. Because of that, bottles were used more than once, in a cycle of bottle reuse.

The (simplified) bottle reuse cycle. The start of the cycle is what we’ve talked about so far, with a bottle being filled with alcohol and sold to the consumer. Once the consumer had consumed their beer, the bottle could be sold or returned and then washed and filled again. Image: C. Watson.

Sold or returned to whom, you might have been wondering. Advertisements by local breweries, hotels and importers for bottles were a common sight in 19th century newspapers. Image, clockwise from top left: Press 23/03/1870: 1; Lyttelton Times 11/10/1895: 1; Press 25/11/1863: 1; Star 15/06/1869: 1; Press 20/02/1874: 3.

There are two points of bottle reuse in the journey of the beer bottle from England to New Zealand: one in England and the other in New Zealand. In the bottle exporter section above, we mentioned that the bottles exported to New Zealand were washed by the bottling company, as most often they were old bottles that were being reused. As we mentioned in our first blog on the assemblage, the export market made up only a minor proportion of brewers’ sales. Most English beer was bottled in England and consumed in England, meaning the bottles could go through the re-use cycle indefinitely.

Quitting being an archaeologist to become a professional diagram maker. This masterpiece shows the two cycles of bottle re-use. Image: C. Watson.

Once the original contents of the bottle were consumed, then the bottle was sold. From there it was washed, refilled and re-sold. Local breweries were reliant on the continual import of bottles into New Zealand as a source of bottles. Whilst they could purchase empty bottles directly from bottle manufacturers in England and import them to New Zealand, all bottles whether empty of filled carried a 1 penny import duty (Tasker 1989: 39), making it cheaper to buy already imported, used bottles.

Just as we find advertisements for bottles wanted in 19th century newspapers, we also find bottles for sale notices. All the advertisements listed here are from commercial businesses. It would make sense that aerated water manufacturers, hotels, and shops would be the biggest source of bottles given they were also the biggest consumers, but individuals could also sell their if they wanted to. Also interesting is the reference in the bottom right story of a Robert Gilmour being charged with selling bottles that still had old labels on them. This was presumably because he was refilling the bottles with a cheaper product than what they originally contained but was still selling them as containing the original contents. What a scoundrel. Image: clockwise from left: New Zealander 13/12/1848: 1; Westport Times 23/12/1871: 3; Star 14/12/1889: 2; Star 6/3/1897: 5; Cromwell Argus 16/3/1897: 4.

The cycle of reuse continued until the bottle was disposed of. The bottles we found at our site were interesting as they contained both imported and locally manufactured beer. The bottles that contained locally manufactured beer were likely once imported with Bass or Guinness in them, and then went through this cycle of reuse before being disposed of. The bottles that held imported beer appear to have never entered into the New Zealand cycle of bottle re-use, instead they were immediately consumed and disposed of (provided that they hadn’t been sold to the occupants of our house by a Robert Gilmour-esque figure who wasn’t replacing the labels on the bottles; proving the old adage of archaeology that we can never know anything for sure).

Clara Watson

References

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

Tasker, J. 1989. Old New Zealand Bottles and Bygones. Wellington: Heinemann Reed.

2 thoughts on “In which bottles are used, beer is drunk, and graphic design atrocities are committed

  1. Greetings Clara from across the waves (Look!; here’s some now! ~~~~~ 🙂 )
    In light of fairness, I don’t consider the dreadfulness of the aforesaid grafics quite as bad as my spollenge (Bad spellings).
    A quick question please (as as yet I’ve not properly consumed this veru good article of yours), have you found much in the way of remnants of Australian beverages?

  2. Facinating info can also be found in ‘Guiness Down Under’ , the story of the famous brew and family who came to Australia and NZ, published by Rod Smith in 2018.

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