Monday, 30 January 2012

Bottling at Aitken in the 1940's

I feel like I'm getting to know Aitken quite well. And not just the Aitken family, but also the people who worked for them. Back in 2002 there was an issue of the Scottish Brewing Archive Journal dedicated to Aitken. With reminiscences of former employees. Great stuff.

This is Jimmy Manson's description of his time working at Aitken during WW II. It's full of details about the operation of the bottling department.

"IT WAS mainly women who worked the machines in the bottling hall. In 1940 the women were needed to do more essential work for the war effort. Young boys were taken on to do their jobs in the brewery, and so I found myself employed in the bottling hall in 1940. at the age of 14. I remained inside the hall for two years, and then outside, still working with bottles, until 1948.

The work was hard, but it was enjoyable. The hall was below ground level, and there was quite an echo inside. Occasionally someone might start singing, and the sound would be all over the place. It was wet in places, and both the women and men wore clogs, which the brewery supplied for nothing. Some old women still worked there during the war. There was Mary Young, who was the sister of the bottling hall gaffer, and Jean Hendry, who was in her 60s. Jean used to give me a list and I would go down to the Co-op at lunchtime to get her messages."
Scottish Brewing Archive Journal volume 4, 2002, page 5.

Clogs were provided because of the wet floor, which played hell with leather-soled shoes. It was just the same when I worked on the keg filler at Hole's. We were provided with wellies. Not just any wellies, steel toe-capped ones. You needed to protect yourself not just from the wet but also those heavy bloody kegs. You wouldn't want a full one landing on your unprotected toes.

Interesting use of the word “messages” to mean shopping. The Dutch word for shopping is “boodschappen”, which literally means “messages”. Not sure what significance that might have, but I thought I’d mention it.

"The bottles used were either new or returned empties. If empties, you had to take a note of the number of bottles so that customers could be credited. We were so busy that Willie Hunter was taken on to work with me. He noted the number of empties and I unloaded the lorries bringing them in. Sometimes we had to wait after five o'clock for lorries coming in, and sometimes we worked on Sundays, for double time. We always worked until 12pm on Saturdays. When Falkirk were playing football at home, three boxes of Export were sent down to the ground, probably for entertainment after the game. I always went down to the ground with the beer and received a complimentary ticket for the game that day."
Scottish Brewing Archive Journal volume 4, 2002, page 5.

It's pretty much forgotten now, but working on a Saturday morning used to be the norm. During the war, hours were even longer. My mum told me that at some points in the war she worked 12-hour shifts 7 days a week. War is, indeed, hell. It sounds very innocent, turning up at the football ground with three crates of beer. But hang on, could that have been during the war? The Scottish League was suspended. Though there were other games played.

Finally onto the meat of the bottling process:

"We got new glass bottles from both the Alloa Glassworks and a place in Guildford. Slim half-pint green glass bottles came from Alloa, and heavier, dumpier brown glass bottles came from Guildford. All our pint bottles were made from brown glass, and these came from Guildford.

When bottles came in they were unloaded from the lorries and placed on a roller to be sent down to two lassies who look them out of the boxes and put them, eight at a time, in the washing machine They were then sent round on a roller to the holding machine, where they were filled with beer. The machines could be adjusted to take into account the different size of bottles. From there they were sent on to the topping machine, where they were either lined with an internal screw-top or a metal crimp-top. The bottles were then stacked on trays and sent through the pasteuriser, before being sent on to the labelling machine. There was very little manual work involved other than the moving of bottles on or off rollers, as the machines did everything themselves, whether washing, filling or labelling.

Beer was supplied to the bottling hall from two cellars. In each there were rows of hoggets [hogsheads] on gantries. One cellar was for 90/- and Export, and the other was for a light ale that was bottled in pint screw-tops and dumpy crimp-tops. The latter was called 'Fourpenny' by the workers, and was generally known as Yellow Label. The beer was piped from all the hoggets into cylinders, then it was passed through a filter before arriving at the bottling machine. Jock Brown was in charge of four cylinders. During the war all Aitken's draught beer was light. The 90/- and Export was bottled."
Scottish Brewing Archive Journal volume 4, 2002, pages 6 - 7.

You can see the synergy that existed within Scottish industry. The glassworks complemented the breweries in Alloa. Mostly car parks now, Alloa's factories. It's hard to imagine now just how prevalent manufacturing industry once was in Britain's towns.

Green glass bottles? That's not very good, is it? I'm surprised. I'd have expected all their bottles to be brown. Bottles with internal screw tops were the first improvement on natural cork stoppers. They remained in use up until at least the 1970's (I can remember buying quart screw-top bottles of Whitbread from Mr. Fisher's offie opposite when I lived in Leeds. Must have been 1978 or 1979.) Long after the introduction of crown corks (here called crimp-tops).

I'm surprised that the beer was still being put into hogsheads before bottling. I'd have expected it just to go into a tank after primary fermentation. Surely filling into hogsheads was only necessary if the beer were to be bottled elsewhere (like Bass or Guinness).

Let's summarize the process: the beer is delivered to the bottling cellar in hogsheads, it's transferred from there into a cylinder, en route between there and the bottling machine it was filtered, once the bottles had been filled tops were put on and they were pasteurised.

Now onto the beers themselves. Luckily I have details of some of them. In 1938, 90/-had a gravity of 1039º. That's similar to Whitbread's IPA or Barclay Perkins bottled XLK. For the period, that's more like a Light Ale than a Pale Ale. In London, standard draught Bitter was about 1045º, Best Bitter 1050º. By 1949, Aitken 90/- was just 1030º.

The details I have for Export are from a little before and are a little after this period. In 1934, it had an OG of 1055º. I'd expect it was of a similar gravity when the war started. That's the strength of a good Best Bitter. In 1954, it was 1043º, still a respectable strength for the time. Based on other beers, it probably bottomed out at about 1038º just after the war's end.

Though I've details of other Aitken Pales Ales, I can't identify any of them as that light ale or Fourpenny. I could make a totally random guess, but there's no point. I'd rather stick with facts.

1 comment:

BryanB said...

Messages is (or was) also the Irish term for shopping, so I'm not too surprised to hear it used in Scotland.