Among the earliest beer packaging we find dried pumpkin shells, clay pots or sacks made from tanned or raw animal hides. As early as a thousand years ago they functioned aside the only one that remained until our days – the barrel. Their popularity stemmed from their resistance and ease of use. Shortly speaking – only a barrel could endure the hardships of transport, while containing large quantities of beer.
A document from 852, issued on the area of present United Kingdom, mentions barrels of beer as a form of payment for land lease. The price of barrelled beer depended on its capacity. In order to ensure fair rules of the game, in the 16th century brewers were forbidden to manufacture barrels themselves and were obliged to purchase them from coopers, who were paying attention that each of them had capacity of exactly 36 gallons (ca. 136 litres). In the UK, this measure for the barrel is used to this day.
Barrels were troublesome, however. Firstly, they used to fall victim to fungi that penetrated from the air. Their nature was understood as late as in the 19th century with the pioneering works of Pasteur and Hansen. True, wooden barrels were cleaned with lime or lye, but still, brewers sometimes had to empty the barrels with sour beer. However, sour and winey flavours were so universally present at that time, that until now they are considered indispensable in such kinds of beer as lambic or Berlin’s weissbier.
Second, the beer remaining in an opened barrel used to lose its gas saturation (which was still lower than at present) obtained in the barrel during repeated fermentation. This difficulty was solved in the 19th century, when compressed carbon dioxide was introduced, which was used to saturate the opened barrels. As a result, an effect of carbon dioxide saturation during the entire lifecycle was achieved.
With these improvements, barrels remained in usage till the 1920s (in Tychy, because of war backwardness they were used till 1960s, and in other Polish breweries even till 1970s). With time, they began to be replaced by aluminium barrels, and later with steel barrels.
The barrels, except the ones made from stainless steel, were tarred with resin or wax in order to isolate the beer from the internal surface of the container. It disinfected the interior of the barrel before its repeated use and minimised the risk of beer spoiling during storage. In case of steel or aluminium, the coverage with tar additionally helped to prevent corrosion and the producing of an unpleasant, metallic flavour in beer.
In late 19th century the brewers gained support in their fight with the bacteria with the dissemination of cooling during transport and serving of the beer. It was noticed that most of the destructive forces develop in higher temperatures. This is also when the first artificial ice generators, which helped to maintain lower temperatures, began to be manufactured.
The modern heir of wooden barrels are steel kegs which allow to maintain the highest level of cleanliness and preserve the fresh taste. The beer in kegs, which leaves our breweries in Tychy, Białystok and Poznań, is a world-class product. But in order for the consumer to enjoy beer in as good condition as straight from the brewery, many prerequisites must be met regarding its storage and serving. But this is an entirely different story...
One thing is certain – though beer is now being made even in plastic bottles, the good old barrel still holds very well, smiling from old photographs with their beautiful, burnt-out names of breweries on lids...
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