As the days are getting longer and warmer, the thought of finishing this “Freight Car Friday night” with a cold beer is probably starting to sound pretty good! And chances are good that your beer had a ride on the rails on its way to the tap.
Compared to the history of brewing, railroads are just a young upstart. But the expansion of railroad networks in the Nineteenth Century had a tremendous impact on the making of beer. Like most other products, the ability to move large quantities of raw materials and finished goods over greater distances at reduced costs allowed brewers to grow from local blends to national brands.
Brewers could now buy barley by the boxcar – and ship their beer in new refrigerated cars to thirsty markets all over North America. It did not take long for the economies of scale to work in favor of those enterprising brew houses that could position themselves on a rail head.
Rightfully proud of their name and heritage, brewing companies were among the first to treat the cars which carried their products as traveling billboards. The era of the “Billboard Reefer” saw elaborate graphics applied to the sides of the wooden cars. Beer advertising ended with prohibition and the ICC outlawed the advertising arrangements for a completely different reason in 1934.
Following the repeal of prohibition however, the beer was once again rolling on the rails, albeit in more demur rolling stock. Temperature control is of critical importance to the brewing companies. Improvements in freight car designs in the 1960s, specifically insulated boxcars, helped railroads retain at least some of the long-haul shipments. Just as the rails had once opened new transportation avenues, the growing interstate highway system was now making trucks an increasingly attractive option, especially on short – medium distance runs.
Although mechanical reefers could be used, the insulated boxcar is usually the vehicle of choice for beer today. The insulation works both ways sometimes. Not only does it keep the contents chilled when traveling through hot climates, it can also prevent it from freezing in the winter. In particularly hot or cold times, railroads have to take extra care to keep the cars moving to prevent spoilage.
The raw materials for brewing also still regularly arrive by rail. One of the more interesting moves was Coors’ shipment of wort (concentrated beer) from Colorado to a bottling plant in Virginia. A new facility has made this shipment unnecessary. Coors also operates its own interplant railroad in Colorado, complete with special covered hoppers equipped with pneumatic doors and timers that automatically release the proper amount of material in time with the brewing process.
Coors isn’t alone in its railroad operations. The Manufacturers Railway in St. Louis was owned by Anheuser Busch, although its attractive paint schemes had no mention of its brewery ties. The railroad served the famous brewery from 1887 to 2011 and has since been taken over by FTRL.
Whether your preference is bright billboard reefers or today’s discreet covered hoppers and insulated boxcars, a brewery can be an interesting addition to a train layout. Over the years, there have even been train-themed brews which could inspire some interesting and appropriate models for your “micro brewery.” And as always, please enjoy your beer and trains responsibly!