Draft Beer History



Early Barrels and Dispensing

What are the beginnings of draft beer history?

In most ancient descriptions of beer drinking, the beer was served from communal bowls or pots. Hollow reeds were used to suck the liquid out of the bowls and the batch was shared in a ceremonial manner. Throughout that early history, beer was definitely home-brewed as there were no known commercial breweries.

There are references in ancient texts of barrels being used to transport wine. It seems logical that beer would also be stored in barrels of some sort. We could assume that storage was a big issue for beer and even though it was possibly created as a way to preserve grain, the beer itself needed to be preserved. Putting the beer into casks would help to preserve it by keeping it from the outside environment.

Of course storage in a barrel also provided a convenient way to serve beer without having to suck it out of a bowl with a straw.

When the medieval monks in Europe began producing beer in large quantities for their own use, storage of beer became an issue. Putting beer into barrels then came into widespread practice. Originally, this was done to supply the monastery with a supply of beer for a given period. However, it became known to the general population that the monasteries had beer and the practice of the monks selling the beer became common.

Thus draft beer history began.

Along with the larger scale production and sale of beer came a need for certain standards. These standards applied to fair pricing for consumers and consistent taxation of the product. In fact, it was common for priests to be paid in beer for blessing the brewing of each batch. If beer was to be used as a payment method than any given volume of beer would need to be consistently measured.

The remnants of some of these historical measures are still in use today, though mostly in name only. Tuns, hogsheads, barrels, kilderkins and firkins are common descriptions of beer storage devices collectively known as barrels or casks. They are also defined volumes for storage and sale of beer.

The two most commonly used today are the barrel and the firkin. The firkin is defined as ¼ of a barrel and is the common measurement and storage vessel of cask-conditioned ale. The barrel’s volume however does vary from North America, The United Kingdom and mainland Europe. So that a barrel in the US is 31 gallons and barrel in the UK is 36 “imperial” gallons.

For simple reference at this point, the standard keg of domestic beer sold in the US is 1/2 of a barrel (US) so it is 15.5 gallons. There are other sizes available including the 5 gallon “Cornelius” keg used for home brew kegging.
Learn More About Keg Sizes

Distribution and Bottling Success

For centuries barrels were the only viable method for storing and transporting beer. By default barrels became the primary means for serving beer at least for commercial purposes. Home brewed beer may have continued to be served from bowls, buckets and jars.

In the sixteenth century, bottling of beer came into practice as an improved means of storing, preserving and serving beer. However, because of the high cost and labor needed for bottling, only the wealthy were commonly found to have bottled beer. The masses still consumed their beer from casks either purchased and consumed onsite at a brewery or tavern or taken home in whatever container may have been available.

Keep in mind that in those days there were no large scale breweries cranking out thousands of barrels of beer. Beer was locally brewed in communities with a brewery. The common people consumed beer in public meetinghouses such as taverns while the rich took their purchases home for storage and consumption later. This pattern of consumption of the same beer within a community continued into the twentieth century – the wealthy were able to store and serve beer at home while the common people drank in public places.

In colonial North America the availability of beer was often limited by local shortages of ingredients and high import taxes on finished products. The idea that colonial America was flowing in beer is, unfortunately, a myth. The common beverages in colonial America were hard cider and rum. Hard cider was easily made at home and rum was a cheap import from the West Indies or distilled locally to avoid taxes. However, the beer that was available was generally available in barrels.

Wealthy citizens like Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and Adams are known for their beer brewing. However, they had the means to import barley malt and hops. Commercial brewing was accomplished on a small scale in Philadelphia, New York and Boston and these beers were stored and sold in barrels – and served from barrels.

As the nineteenth century progressed, a convergence of factors supported the expansion of bottling and its popularity grew along with the industrialization of brewing in the US and abroad. The industrial revolution brought tens of thousands of people into the cities to work. While working in factories people had less time for socializing in taverns and brewers needed to respond. Bottling was a means to get beer more easily into the hands of their customers. Working twelve hours a day, six days a week limited access to pubs and taverns so brewers bottled in order to get the beer into their customers homes.

The industrialization of brewing and bottling practices opened the market for brewers to reach the millions of immigrant laborers that were flooding into the US. The immigrants also provided new techniques and practices for brewing especially those from Central and Eastern Europe. During the mass immigrations of the late 1800’s lager beer came into the forefront of US brewing and the population in general showed a preference for bottled lager beer.

Prior to the influx of immigrants from continental Europe, Americans were English ale drinkers. Porter was probably the most popular style. With lager beer moving to the forefront of American’s taste, English styles faded. Along with the popularity of lager beer came a parallel taste for cold beer with higher levels of carbonation. With the long conditioning at cold temperatures, continental styles came with more dissolved CO2 in beers and Americans developed a love for bubbles in their beer.

Hard Times for Kegs


The preference for carbonated lagers created some difficulties in the U.S. for serving beer from barrels. The common practice of pulling beer up from the basement using a beer engine was ineffective because the action of the pumping caused far too much foaming. New dispense systems had to be developed that (a) allowed the beer to be served cold (b) maintained the carbonation in the beer and (c) allowed the beer to be poured without too much foam.

By the turn of the twentieth century brewers almost always owned the saloons in which only their own beer was served, or they owned exclusive rights to have only their beer served. This “tied house” system fostered development of proprietary dispense mechanisms and storage systems. Some brewers were able to install newly developed refrigeration systems in saloons while others still relied on ice to keep the beer cold. Also by this time, draft beer was nearly always served to the saloon taps using compressed gas. Typically this gas was air, which quickly oxidizes beer making it taste stale.

During this period, pasteurization of beer became common in order to allow quality to be maintained through shipping and delivery. In fact, pasteurization was developed and used in brewing long before it became common in dairy products. With pasteurization came stable (some would say dead) beer. This beer did not have to be stored cold, thereby making it easier to store and ship.

In the post prohibition U.S. (after the 1933 repeal), nearly all beer was pasteurized included draft beer. This was a decline in quality from fresh brewed beer and put draft beer on the same level as bottled and canned beer, which were also pasteurized. Without brewery freshness and combined with poor dispense and serving methods, draft beer fell out of favor. Consumers could chose bottles and cans served at home over bad draft beer at a saloon. Of course at the same time brewers were focused on selling canned and bottled beer. .

By 1939, prepackaged, bottled beer had out sold draft beer for the first time. Brewers pushed bottled beer on the public that was ever more than willing to abide. It is perhaps a side note to this story that brewers pursued selling home consumption as a means to prevent a resurgence of prohibitionist sentiment. The thought being that by keeping drunken behavior out of the public eye and instead moving it into the homes of the American public, brewers kept prohibitionist and temperance movements at bay.

Post World War II, drinking beer at home was the foremost beer consuming activity and brewers catered their efforts to this huge market leaving draft beer as an afterthought. With the exception of an occasional backyard barbeque or weekend frat parties, Americans were drinking bottled and canned beer. It wasn’t until recently when the technology for serving draft beer was simplified by using pre-packaged, compressed carbon dioxide that draft beer started to make a comeback.

Draft beer has improved further by the elimination of pasteurization and domestic (North American) kegs are now shipped and stored cold. This has fostered a comeback that is a boom to consumers. Now there are choices available for serving beer at home that were not available only a few years ago. It is now common to own a small beer refrigerator that dispenses draft beer. These are purchased already manufactured as a “kegerator” or built at home from an unused refrigerator or freezer.

Draft beer is back and now you can serve it at home.



Return to All About Draft Beer from Draft Beer History