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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 9 April 2010

Ready to play? What's the day? It's bottling day!

Hello, I'm Brian Cant. *Sighs wearily*. Yes, I AM sure it's spelled with an 'A'!

This is an admission of being an old fart now I guess, but do you remember Play School? The highlight of every programme – before you were old enough to be sneery about who was hotter, Hamble or Jemima – was when they went through one of the windows to look at the world outside their pastel-toned Neverland. Would it be the square window? The arched window? Or the… the……. The ROUND window! That pause taught Chris Tarrant and Reality TV presenters everything they know.

Once safely through the appropriate window we always seemed to end up in a factory. After a while they all blurred into one, but they never failed to fascinate. In the 1970s Britain’s economy was still manufacturing-based, and there was something both soothing and compelling about watching unidentifiable bits of extruded plastic pass along a conveyor belt, through various stamping and shaping and colouring and bending and cutting machines, the duff ones being lifted from the belt by blank-faced yet somehow cool factory workers in white coats and hair nets, until at the end you recognised ranks of shiny, brand new dolls. Or cars. Or ready meals. Everything in creation seemed to come from a production line, and Play School visited every single one of them. The windows seemingly looked in on God’s own workshop.

I’m reminded of this every single time I visit a brewery. Because while beer writers and beer lovers may profess a passion for hops, or yearn to see ancient coppers still toiling away or breathe in the fruity aroma of rocky yeast from open square fermenters, as far as the brewers themselves are concerned there is one star attraction and one only: the bottling line.

God moves across the face of the brewery

We often talk about the uneasy and complex relationship between the brewer and his yeast in which the microscopic organism is always the ultimate boss. But the same applies to the bottling line. It’s a cruel mistress that enslaves and fascinates them. They love it and hate it. They want to smash it with hammers on the frequent occasions when something goes wrong, and to become one with the elegant dance of its shiny, sterile perfection when it works properly.

The last brewery I visited was Hall & Woodhouse, and despite the extensive tour which included watching the beer being mashed in, the bottling line wasn’t running and they couldn’t apologise profusely enough. To hear them, you’d think they’d got us all the way to Dorset under false pretences. They genuinely thought they’d let us down. This reaction is exactly the same whenever I visit a brewery where the bottling line isn’t running.

But be afraid if you visit when it is running. At the main SABMiller brewery in Milwaukee they show you a video of how beer is made, then take you on a tour of the bottling and packaging lines, and the distribution depot. They tell you all about how much beer they ‘truck and train’ across the US, and then it’s on to the tasting room. When I asked if we were going to see the actual beer being brewed on this brewery tour, I was told no, because compared to the bottling and distribution of beer, brewing itself is “pretty boring”.

Perhaps in Miller’s case that’s true. But even good breweries worship their bottling lines like Pacific Cargo Cults venerate aeroplanes.


You're impressed, right? You sure as hell better be, boy. You don't wanna make me come over there, I'm tellin' ya.

When I visited Asahi in Tokyo we had to watch the bottling line for half an hour. We were given every single specification. They told us that the man who invented Kaiten sushi – the conveyor belt with dishes that come around to your seat – was inspired by watching this very bottling line. He probably dreamt it up in desperation, a ruse to get out of there. “Yes, it’s lovely, really it is, but I’ve got to dash – I need to, um, that’s it! I need to invent a completely new model for how restaurants work! It’s been lovely though, Bye!”

For the rest of us, paying homage to the bottling line is a sort of penitence, a sacrament that must be performed before we can proceed to the heaven of the sample room. So you stand in a strip-lit metal cavern, mute as the shrill chink of glass deafens you, and watch reverentially for about five minutes, pondering. Wow, think about how much beer that is. If you drank two or three bottles every day, how long would it take you to get through that lot? Gosh, they’re a much bigger brewer than you think. And then when you run out of such reflections you turn and indicate that you’re ready to move on, and the brewer looks at you, first hurt, like you’ve said you can’t tell what his five year old son’s drawing is supposed to be of, and then angry, and he grabs you by the hair and slams you against the safety railings and twists your heads to face the conveyor, and growls, “Look at it. I SAID LOOK AT IT. WHAT? YOU’VE ALREADY LOOKED AT IT? WELL LOOK AT IT SOME MORE! AND KEEP LOOKING AT IT UNTIL I TELL YOU THAT YOU’VE LOOKED AT IT ENOUGH!”

Two hours later, hungry and scared, you see him finally turn without a word and leave through a door you’d forgotten existed, into a world you never thought you’d see again. And then you’re in the sample room tasting beers and he’s back to his old self, and everyone pretends nothing happened, and you have a great time.

I said look at it.

Bottling lines are expensive pieces of kit and amazing feats of engineering, so many tiny parts all working in concert. Something has to go wrong, and when it does it must be as frustrating as it is when I spend hours working on a document and then the computer crashes and I lose it. And I know that bottling lines can transform the fortunes of a brewery.

But what I could never say to a brewer’s face is that, while we understand that to you your bottling line is unique, and beautiful, and the best one in the whole world, to us it looks like all the other bottling lines, and when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And remember – a lot of us saw Play School when we were kids too.

And if I’m ever invited to a brewery again after writing this post, I will insist that the entire thing is a joke and in no way reflects my truly feelings, my enduring love and fascination for these wonderful, beguiling pieces of machinery.

16 comments:

Matt said...

I bet you any money you like that any owner and manager of a bottling line dreamed of having a huge train set as a kid.

Every bottling line I have ever seen has been descibed in terms of a train set by it's owner.

Sid Boggle said...

They do tend to create a demarcation between the brewing "haves" and have-nots", though.

I remember visiting the Smuttynose Brewery near Portsmouth NH a few years back. They weren't expecting us, but showed us round anyway, even though they had a mash in and their decades-old bottling line was operating.

It had been salvaged from an old brewery. We didn't spend too much time with it, but it was fascinating - it seemed so rattletrap and old. It was hard to find parts, it was prone to stalling, but Smutty were in the game - their bottles gave them much greater market reach.

Eddie said...

The venerated Frank Boon once invited me to witness his bottling in progress (this was way back, I'm sure they upgraded later). Anyway, 4 swarthy looking Belgians stood ready at various strategic points around the 'line' waiting for the man himself to push a great big green button on the wall, next to a great big red one. Once pushed, all hell broke loose with glass flying and liquid squirting out of any chink it could find. One man, Frank, stood cooly at the end of the line carefully placing bottles of gueuze, one at a time, into cardboard crates. After 10 minutes small piles of broken glass had grown at certain weak points in the system, along with puddles of beer.

But Frank was dead proud and I never forgot.

Ed said...

It's only brewers with a background in chemical engineering who obsess about bottling lines. The more microbiologically minded like myself go on about yeast and biochemistry incessantly.

Zak said...

Eddie - that sounds more fun than a usual tour, although are you sure that wasn't an episode of It's a Knockout, with Stuart Hall laughing "and here come the Belgians!"

Bottling lines are all a bit samey, although I was impressed at the look of far-away rapture that Josef Tolar had while surveying the bottling line at Budvar last month.

Chris B said...

And it was ever thus.... This film from 1959 about the brewing process also devotes a huge amount of time to talking about the bottling line. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyBJGXbU7tc

James Weber said...

I went on a tour of New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado on a Saturday. To make up for not having the bottling line running, the guide "snuck" us into a secret employee area to go down an employee-only playground slide. Sure, they did this for every tour when the bottling line wasn't running, but they felt like they had to really make us feel special, to distract us from seeing the glimmering bottles go by.

Bailey said...

I'm sure I've mentioned somewhere before the hotel we stayed in in Prague once which was next door to the Staropramen brewery. The outdoor bottling line went past our second floor window (about two feet away), and ran until the early hours of the morning. Fascinating at first, and then very, very annoying.

Dan said...

What a thought-provoking article about bottling.

Playschool? I remember that too, am I an old fart at 31 already? I thought I had 9 years' grace at least before I had to wear that epithet.

I still spend a lot of time looking through the "round window" - or the rim of a pint glass as I call it these days.

Reluctant Scooper said...

Enforced enjoyment of bottling line activity runs a close third on my list of Things I Have To Suffer That Steal Precious Minutes From My Life (top two being blurry photographs of other peoples grandchildren and The Wedding DVD - complete with faux-hilarious out-takes).

I used to love Play Away but found Jeremy Irons slightly creepy. Some things never change...

Conan the Librarian™ said...

I used to work in a whisky bottling plant in the seventies and early eighties.
This was before automated lines, and there were many female workers on stools either side of the clattering conveyor belt.
The manager of the bottling hall adjusted the speed to the postures of the girls; if they were centered on their stools, he speeded up the belt until they all at a thirty degree angle and had half a buttock off the stool...

Capitalist bastard.

Stono said...

aaagh, Ive stayed in that hotel in Prague as well, at first its like wow Im right next to the Staropramen brewery how neat is that :) at 4am in the morning after that damn bottling conveyor belt has been squeaking all night and with the endless noise of bottles clinking together you really REALLY wish youd brought some ear plugs with you!!!

David said...

I know an old bloke who used to work at the (real) XXXX brewery in the 80s. He used to describe how workers would desperately swig beer out of a bottle on the line every now and then before smashing it on the floor to justify the missing bottle/grog.

Anonymous said...

@Bailey and Stono - if the bottling line is that close to the window, was it not a bit tempting to lean out and help yourself to a few? Repeat a few times, combine with earplugs, and you've just got yourself a great night's sleep!

Real Ale Girl said...

Have you seen the cute little bottling machine at Brodies? (I'm sure there are many of its ilk out there.) Their brewer says he puts on Kraftwerk to get into the zone.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Luckily enough we were just the other side of the Vltava, but damn we (I) admired (dragged my girlfriend repeatedly past) that bottling line on a few occasions. Mesmerising, but glad I wasn't mere feet away from it all night.