Shipping and packaging of beer in the 20th century.


Contrary to popular belief, beer and its main ingredients have always been shipped and traded in antiquity.

The Paleo-Babylonians convoy "grains for beer" by ships on the Euphrates, in the context of military operations. In China, special beers of rice or millet are traded at a distance under the Tang and Song. In India, the taxation of fermented grain drinks under the Maurya and Gupta empires testifies that they enter and leave the cities of the Ganges as part of a general trade. The beers of Peluse are exported by late Ptolemaic Egypt. Corn beer circulates along the imperial roads of the Inca Empire of the Andes. The Vikings carry malt on their drakkars. The ships of the Hanseatic League ship barrels of beer, smoked fish, bacon, grains across the Baltic and North Seas. American settlers land in Virginia as their supply of beer and malt is exhausted. And so on.

The large-scale trade and transport of beer is therefore neither a modern invention nor a European speciality.


In the middle of the 18th century, the colonial policy of the European powers encouraged brewers to ship their beers to the other side of the world. They are bottled or casked. Hundreds of these bottles are buried in the soil of the West Indies, Virginia and the North American coasts. The conquest of the colonial continental markets takes place in a second phase. In other words, the production and trade of beers specially intended for export is part of the vast global maritime trade network of the 18th century. The saga of the Indian Pale Ale is exemplary in this regard.

The traders of the East India Company did business with brewers from Essex-Middlesex counties in the second half of the 18th century (e.g., Bow Brewery, later bought by Hodgson & Sons) : a) their breweries were located on the banks of the Thames b) these brewers opened lines of credit to the beer traders for 12 to 18 months, the time of a round trip from the British Indies c) they had in India subjects of his majesty thirsting for good ale brewed in the motherland. Conveying barrels and bottles of ale from London to Calcutta or Bombay is not without technical hardships.The beers brewed in Burton-on-Trent by Allsop, Bass or Salt are more hoppy and a little more alcoholic to guarantee their conservation. The English brewers already had experience of brewing Porter, a dark beer exported to Russia, in barrels or bottles[1]. All the logistic problems are solved at the beginning of the 19th century by brewers and traders, whether the trade is made with the East Indies, through the Atlantic ocean or the Baltic sea.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the European brewery started the long-distance continental transport of beer. In the United States, after the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 granted the railway companies land and the right to issue vouchers to build a network that would link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Dynasties of brewers, new immigrants of German or Czech origin, took advantage of these railway networks to build real beer empires: Frederick Pabst (1836-1904) in Milwaukee, Adolph Coors (1847-1929) and Jacob Schueler (1835-1918) in Colorado, Adolphus Busch (1839-1913) in Missouri, and so on.

In Europe, the radius of the trading areas controled by an industrial brewery kept expanding during the 19th century. The breweries now operate in the middle of rich agricultural lands (barley and malt), close to the malting plants, and above the great water tables essential to their operation[2].They deliver their beers to urban markets several hundred kilometres away. This vast continental beer market will make early use of rail and river transport, well adapted to heavy goods and large volumes. The breweries from Burton-on-Trent deliver their beers to London. The Bavarian and Czech beers are drunk in Paris. The Carlsberg and Tuborg beers flood Northern Germany. The great German breweries operating around Berlin trade their beers toward eastern Europe. The Austrian or Bohemian breweries conquer the central Europe markets.


Among hundreds of similar cases, that of the Alsatian brewery Gruber in France. In 1852, the delivery of the last sections of the Paris-Strasbourg railway line opened up the Parisian market to the agri-food productions of Alsace and Lorraine, the beer in particular. The Compagnie des chemins de fer de l'Est and the brewers get on well together: fast-moving entire trains, private railways branching to the loading platforms of the brewery, special wagons, everything contributed to the development of the local brewing industry, which at the same time was confronted with the artificial cold technical revolution, guaranteeing higher quality. The Gruber brewery in Strasbourg as well as its competitors are developing their delivery network more than 600 km from their factories[3].



[1] About the types of beer Brown Ale, Strong Ale and Porter, voir Ronald Pattinson 2012, Porter.

[2] More than 10 litres of water (brewing, vat washing, bottling, etc.) are used per litre of packaged beer.

[3] Joël Forthoffer 2010, Le transport ferroviaire de denrées périssables en Alsace: l’exemple de la bière, Revue d’histoire des chemins de fer 41, 176-186.

30/11/2020  Christian Berger