Q: Have you seen the Stag Beer billboard on eastbound Highway 15 near Centerville Avenue? It reads “Heavy Metal Since 1851” and depicts a brewery worker hoisting a metal keg. I didn’t think Stag or anyone used metal kegs in 1851. What material did they use 166 years ago? When did they switch to, I guess, aluminum?
Father Stan Konieczny, of Smithton
A: Kevin Kious calls them the good old days, those times of yore when you’d see horse-drawn carts laden with beer kegs lumbering down the street to deliver foamy refreshment to neighborhood watering holes.
But as the Collinsville breweriana expert would be the first to tell you, they also could be called the “wood old days” because that’s what kegs were made of from the time they were conceived of to well into the 1900s.
“Yeah, that billboard is not too historically accurate,” Kious told me. “It’s funny that your reader pointed that out because we have a billboard just like that in Collinsville. It’s been there for months, and I kept meaning to write an article for our newsletter about how the metal keg is not conducive to that 1851 date. I just never got around to taking a picture of it.”
According to the “Encyclopedia of Food Science and Nutrition,” brewing, which became a highly developed skill in most English monasteries, can be traced to Roman times. Even in the beginning, beers were produced and stored in wooden vessels lined with such materials as pitch to prevent leakage.
“Originally, beer was brewed to meet the needs of small communities and was consumed at the production site,” the encyclopedia notes. “But as demand for it grew and beer had to be taken to more distant points-of-sale, transportable casks were required and these, too, were made from wood.”
The most common size of cask held one “barrel,” a medieval-era brewing unit originally equal to 32 Imperial gallons (38.4 U.S. gallons). Then in about 1450, a “barrel” was standardized as a cask containing 36 Imperial gallons. (Here, a standard beer barrel today is 31 U.S. gallons.)
Wooden casks were made from vertical strips of oak (staves) that were bound tightly by horizontal steel hoops. To be watertight, the staves not only were tapered but also bowed so that the hoops could be forced down from the circular end to squeeze them together. This arrangement created the bellied shape of casks, which allowed them to be rolled along the ground and steered. This was a necessary convenience especially for hogsheads, which could weigh well over 500 pounds when full. The shape also allowed for easier storage and retrieval.
“The belly also retained the yeast sediment, which settled during conditioning such that, even as the level in the cask fell, the beer was constantly drawn off from above the sediment, keeping it clear or ‘bright,’ the encyclopedia noted.
But things began to change when breweries had to started pumping out their lager on an industrial scale. From about the 1850s, the process tanks were fashioned from copper sheet. The huge, open fermenting chambers often were lined with (horrors!) lead. Even today, some call the vats where beer ingredients are boiled “coppers.”
“However,” the encyclopedia stresses, “until the mid-1900s, wood remained the only material commonly used for casks for storage, distribution and dispensing. It (had) the advantage that staves damaged by impact during delivery could be replaced individually by the cooper (a person who makes barrels).”
In 1934, London’s Whitbread Brewing Co. briefly started exporting its Flowers India Pale Ale to India in experimental steel casks, but metal as a material for kegs still would not catch on for another decade or two. Stainless steel was introduced in the 1950s before aluminum alloys came along in the early ’60s. Because they were 30 percent lighter than even stainless steel, the latter combined strength and portability.
So anyone who tries to tell you that beer was carted around in metal kegs in 1851 probably had one too many of those humongous glasses you see someone who looks like Curly Howard drinking out of in Stag’s “It’s Not for Beginners” billboards. And if you’d like to relive those wood old days, just search for pictures of “beer kegs on horse carts” on Google.
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Answer to Sunday’s trivia: The Force was certainly with George Lucas when he was a teenager. Long before he became the “Star Wars” legend, Lucas dreamed of being a racecar driver, spending his high school years driving at fairgrounds and spending his spare time in garages. But on June 12, 1962, the high school senior was driving home from school when his Autobianchi Bianchina was slammed broadside by a car going 90 miles an hour. His car flipped more than a half-dozen times, and Lucas was left with several broken ribs and two collapsed lungs, among other serious injuries. But Lucas, who turned 73 on Sunday, defied his doctors’ odds and made a full recovery, re-examining his life and goals in the process. “I should be dead,” he once told Oprah Winfrey. “It did give me this perspective on life that said, you know, basically, I’m operating on extra credit. I said maybe there’s something else for me. Maybe there’s a reason I survived this accident that nobody should have survived. Let’s just go for it. I’m never afraid of dying. I feel like what I’m getting is bonus material.”