Why Beer Bottles are Green, Brown or Clear

March 23, 2010 at 12:26 am 18 comments

St. Patrick’s day was last week and it wasn’t deathly cold that night so I was going to start the evening by finally taking down my Christmas lights. Luckily, I got a much warmer offer from my friend Chris who invited me over for green beer.

Chris’s wife Jeanne was turning yellow beer into green beer using blue food coloring and Jeanne’s daughter was there too. We got talking about import beers and how many of them are in green bottles. Chris pointed out that Moosehead was maybe the only green bottled beer that he liked (and one of the few Canadian beers we get in America). That lead to a conversation about why beer bottles came in three different colors: clear, brown and green.

Chris mentioned the color of the glass protected the beer from light, which was a secret to me, so I read more about it and here’s what I found:

Origins of beer date back as far as 9000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, long before refrigeration and pasteurization were invented. For this reason, beer did not keep well and all of it had to be drunk relatively soon after brewing — this is the primary reason why these times were called “the good old days.”

It’s not known exactly when glass bottles became popular for beer, but bottles can be dated back to at least 1850. Beer was put in other bottles before then. They say a monk first took beer on a picnic in a wine bottle, forgot about it and discovered it much later. To his surprise, the bottle kept the beer very fresh, more so than any other storage method.

Beer bottles were green in color until the 1930s when it was discovered that brown bottles filtered out some light that prevented the beer from going “skunky.” It’s not called “skunky” because it smells bad, it’s called that because if you expose beer to light for long enough, it will actually smell like a skunk. Chemists at the University of North Carolina and Ghent University in Belgium found that sunlight breaks down alpha acids in hops that react with sulfur to make a chemical that is nearly identical to the smelly chemical that skunks spray.

Brown bottles filter out visible and ultraviolet light that causes this reaction. Clear and green bottles don’t do much for filtering out the harmful light, clear and green bottles are often a marketing decision more than a practical one.

Clear bottles look great, showing off the color and texture of the beer while green bottles were once a status symbol for beer. After World War II, there was a shortage of brown glass, so European brewers exported their beer in green bottles. Because many of those beers were extremely high quality and others were just priced to seem that way, the green bottle became a status symbol for great beer.

Beers with little or no hops aren’t as susceptible to damage from light, so clear and green bottles are widely accepted for those beers.

Broken Secrets

Written By: Chad Upton

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Sources: My friend Chris, RealBeer.com, Wikipedia, Washington Post, The Beer Bottle Collector, Professor’s House

Entry filed under: Around The House, Demystified, Food and Drink. Tags: , , , , , , .

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Adam  |  March 23, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I love reading about beer. Excellent tidbits!

    Reply
  • 2. me  |  March 24, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Here in NZ most brown bottle stuff is the cheapie local stuff, while clear is mexican beers like Sol or Corona and green is european/local premium, all that yummy steinlager, stella and the like.

    Reply
    • 3. beerdude930303  |  August 24, 2013 at 11:42 pm

      stella, corona and sol are all very shitty beers

      Reply
  • 4. barleypopmaker  |  April 15, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    You are exactly right. It is this very reason that craft beer in cans is making a revival. Brown bottles offer the best protection for beer, but green and clear offer little to no protection. Also, in the 80’s when Imports like Heineken became known as “The good stuff” that skunky aroma and flavor was associated with good quality beer, while in reality it is the opposite (you would be shocked to know that the the chemical reaction in the hops creates the same chemical as in the skunk’s defense spray. It doesn’t just smell like it, it is it..which is pretty gross if you ask me). I do have one minor correction, lighter beers do not fair better in clear bottles, in fact they do worse. As do hoppier beers like IPA’s. Those light lagers are packaged in clear bottles to attract those who want to drink the lightest beer possible and the clear bottle shows it. Green is mainly used to hit that green bottles=good imports misconception. Being used to Bud, Miller, and Coors products, many of us Americans associated that pungent aroma as something good. To this day, many people call warm or oxidized beer “skunky” when in fact those lighter beers just don’t do well the more they get above that 34 degree mark. Bud at 45 degrees tastes like crap because the cold kills the tastes buds, a 40 or 45 degree brown ale for example will taste good, or even be at it’s peak at slightly warmer temps. But beer temperature is a totally different topic. Anyway, good post to raise awareness about beer!

    Reply
  • 5. Gus  |  May 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    I heard that Green Bottle beer is premium beer, Brown is pilsener and Light Bottles are Draft beer… just check the labels and you’ll see..

    Reply
  • 6. Max Wynter  |  December 14, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I previously ordered a box of beer from you and would like to do the same again. Can’t remember the name of the variety, It was bitter style.

    Max

    Reply
  • 7. Christopher  |  December 19, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Is there a reason why they use clear bottles like Mikes Hard Lemonade?

    Reply
  • 8. Jamie  |  February 13, 2011 at 10:36 am

    I didn’t know so much science was in beer bottles, I won’t look at a beer the same again :)

    Reply
  • 9. Home Brew  |  June 17, 2011 at 2:35 am

    Awesome blog about the brew!!! and what I know that

    1-Dark brown glass greatly reduces UV light from spoiling the beer..
    2-lighter colored bottles are used for marketing reasons.

    Anyways thanks for letting us this useful information about brew….

    Reply
  • 10. Danie  |  November 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Is there a specific amount of time in light at which beer “skunks” or is a general term. I am waiting for a batch to finish and have an abundance of clear bottles. this batch is a blonde ale, and will most like see sun in transit to familys house and only while being consumed.

    Reply
  • 11. A Beer Bottle By Any Other Color… | The Booze Buzz  |  June 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    […] than cans and clear bottles displaying the color and texture of the beer better.  Interestingly, green bottles seem to be a status symbol dating back to a shortage of brown glass and a change in European beer packing given the shortage […]

    Reply
  • 12. Luke Rodda  |  October 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    You are correct for the brown bottle filtering out near ultraviolet light that causes the “skunky” smell to be produced (i.e.3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol).

    However, as green and clear bottles slightly and completely do not remove this light, respectively, artificial hops are actually used (not really to the public’s knowledge). These chemically synthesized from natural hop extract are called reduced iso-alpha-acids of which there are three of (rho-, tetrahydro- and and hexahydro-iso-alpha-acids). They also have different bittering powers and provide foam stabilities (head) and other properties. There is actually no natural hops used in clear bottled beer and maybe only some brewers will use it in green bottled beer if they control the transport and storage and protect from light (e.g. cardboard boxes).

    After starting my research and study into beer and the detection of these hop products in blood after ingestion of beer, I now ONLY drink brown bottles!

    Reply
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