Beer Bottles

Beer Bottles SmallToday it’s easy to take beer bottles for granted. You reach into the fridge, pop the top, guzzle it down, and toss it in the recycling. Or maybe you order another round at the bar and get three or four more cold, clear brown cylinders, just starting to become frosty with condensation. Down the hatch.

The bottle: It’s the most popular beer packaging in the world. And it’s likely to stay that way, even as more craft breweries are slowly starting to embrace cans. So it’s worth taking a moment to look closer at beer bottles and what they mean to boozologists, beer lovers, and everyone in between. Beer has been around for thousands of years. But bottles have only been mass-produced since around the turn of last century. So how did brewers get their beer to drinkers before then?

A very common way was in casks, or barrels. But if you’ve ever had a beer out of a cask (which you can still do), you know it’s relatively warm and flat. Until bottles became the standard way of packaging beer, there was no way to ensure that beer would be cold and vigorously fizzy at the point of service. Your classic beer bottle is made of brown glass and holds 12 ounces. But there are many variations on this design. Let’s break down each characteristic of a bottle:

Capacity: The 12-ounce bottle is king, though the 11.2 ounce bottle, found most often in Europe, is a familiar alternative. Some Belgian Trappist ales come in 11.2 ounce bottles, as well as popular imports like Pilsner Urquell. Bigger than the 12-ouncer is the 22-ounce beer bottle, commonly known as a bomber. Both craft breweries and giant breweries produce bombers, which are good for when you want a little extra. Though relatively rare, good beer bars and retailers will probably have at least a few artisan brews in 750ml bottles, which are equal to just over 25 ounces. This is also the classic size for wine bottles. Larger than these, you might be familiar with mass-produced beers like Bud and Coors Light in 32-ounce bottles, and above that the infamous 40. We’ll assume you know all there is to know about those.

Color: The color of a beer bottle affects more than just how it looks. Brown is by far the most common color, and there’s a good reason for this: It does a good job at protecting the beer against sunlight. Believe it or not, direct exposure to sunlight (and some fluorescent lights) causes a chemical reaction with certain hop-derived compounds that gives beer an unmistakably nasty “skunked” aroma and flavor. Green bottles, which are the next-most common (think Beck’s or Heineken), don’t protect beer as well as brown glass, but they are better than… clear bottles. You’d be well-advised not to buy a six-pack of Corona (probably the most common clear-bottled beer) that you see sitting in the direct tropical sun.

Actually you can apply this principle to any bottled beer—if it’s been sitting in the sun for even thirty minutes, you might want to skip it. Also remember it when it comes to storing your own beer supply. A darker resting place is better—it doesn’t take long for light to ruin beer. One other way that large, deep-pocketed breweries have addressed this issue is to create metal bottles that keep all light out. These are popular at sporting events, not least because—unlike glass—they don’t make for good weapons or projectiles in the hands of spectators who have had a few too many.

For more information on the phenomenon of lightstruck beers, check out this article.

Closure: Most beer bottles are sealed with a metal crown cap. Lower-end beers usually have a more convenient twist-off cap, while craft beers still usually have a cap that requires a bottle opener to remove. There is also the flip-top cap (AKA “Swing-top” or “Grolsch cap”, named for the only worldwide-popular beer brand that uses them.) These are permanently attached to the bottle and easy to open by flipping up the wire hinge that secures them down. 750ml bottles are often sealed with the same cork and wire cage as a champagne bottle. These can be opened by hand, but be careful! The cork is under a lot of pressure and can take out an eyeball if it shoots in an unpredictable direction. So there you have the most common variations on the beer bottles you’re most likely to encounter. For a variety of practical reasons cans are catching on among craft brewers, but as long as there’s enough glass to go around, count on the bottle remaining king.