It’s a brave person who looks at a bag of battery acid and thinks, “Imagine if I could drink out of that.” But that’s just what South Australian winemaker Thomas Angove thought to himself one day in the early 1960s.
At the time, Angove was the managing director of a family-owned winery in Adelaide. From its early founding in the late 19th century, it had grown into one of the largest in the region, and, thanks to family connections in England, became a major exporter of Australian wine. That meant that Angrove was in need of cheap, effective, and secure packaging.
Enter Bag-in-Box (BiB).
The BiB format had been invented by William R. Scholle in 1956 (and eventually earned him induction into the Packaging Hall of Fame in 1991), though it wasn’t, at first, intended for anything consumable. In his original patent, Scholle highlights the benefits of BiB as an “economical but adequate means for packing, storing, and dispensing liquid materials such as acids and alkalies, one particular example of which is electrolyte for storage batteries.”
Less than a decade after that early patent, John Angove recalls his dad (who passed away in 2010) presenting him with a new purpose for the bags. The liquid inside was still dangerous, in its own way.
“I would’ve been an early teenager I guess, and Dad brought home this prototype he’d just put together here at work, and said, ‘Look at this brilliant idea that I’ve got,’” John, now the company’s managing director, remembers. “And I said, ‘Err, what is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s a Bag-in-Box, and it’s got wine inside it.’
Despite John’s skepticism, Thomas was stubborn. He was also determined that the choice would eventually cut down on waste and be better for the environment. “Dad was very conscious of the fact that the [four-liter] Bag-in-Box didn’t generate an empty flagon,” John says. “Two glass flagons that you don’t have to get rid of.”
Cue close to two decades of experimentation. John recalls years of “nightmares with leaking problems and shelf life problems.” Early models also had no taps. The bag had to be cut and decanted at once, or resealed with a makeshift clip. John was next in line to run the wine dynasty, and the product didn’t exactly fill him with hope.
“We mucked around with different films, and laminated films, and tapping devices because the original box didn’t have the tapping mechanism which is an automatic part of today’s Bag-in-Box,” he says. “We went to a plastics engineer to get some help with the tapping device and he came up with how it could be done.”
While he is often credited with inventing the overall concept, Angove’s patent wasn’t quite what we know as BiB. Instead he patented the “gusseted bag” which John describes as a “plastic bag that fills the box with a minimum amount of material.” The little side panels that fold in on themselves, allowing the bags to expand evenly and larger than a non-gusseted bag? That’s all Thomas.
“I describe Dad as a frustrated engineer because he had science qualifications but not engineering qualifications. He could turn his hand to anything,” John remembers. “The workshop at home was the most amazingly equipped workshop you would find anywhere. He could make anything in that workshop.”
From Angove’s early experiments, boxed wine finally, eventually took off—first in Australia, and then in the rest of the world. John’s theory as to its appeal: “It does allow a lot of people to access an evening glass of wine economically.” There’s diplomacy in his words. Just behind his teeth are harsher phrases frequently used to describe boxed wine, though he is practiced enough not to let them escape.
Today, the winery (now known as Angove Family Winemakers) no longer sells products in BiB packaging, which reflects an evolution in Australian wine trends. In the ’80s and ’90s, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, BiB accounted for over half of all wine sales. That number has declined to one quarter today, thanks in part to perceptions that the product within is low-quality.
There may be something to the criticism. According to one study on the bags, which are typically lined with polyethylene or ethylene vinyl acetate, they can act as “flavor scalpers” of volatile compounds in white wine. However, how that translates outside of the study, which was conducted with one style of wine stored at 68° Fahrenheit (20° Celsius), isn’t clear. Another study, also using white wine, showed, that, at 104° Fahrenheit (40° Celsius), “volatile esters also decreased in these wines, while increased levels of compounds generally associated with age- or heat-affected wine were found.”
Now BiB is best associated stateside with college parties. Australian drinkers, who call the product “goon,” (origins of the word are unclear, though theories link it to “flagon,” or an archaic British slang term for “idiot”) will be familiar with “goon of fortune,” a drinking game that’s kind of like spin the bottle, only with less making out. (To play, simply gather your friends; peg some goon bags onto a circular, rotating clothesline; stand underneath, spin, and drink when it lands on you.)
Although BiB may never be viewed as a premium form of packaging, it is seeing a surprising second act within the world of beer. From Lambic producers to modern craft breweries, more than a few brewers are now putting BiB to effective and innovative use.
Lambic producers in Belgium are proportionally the biggest users of BiB in the beer world. Of the 14 commercial producers listed on lambic.info, six, including the likes of Cantillon and Tilquin, have produced Bag-in-Box products at one time or another. Not listed on the site is Den Herberg, which launched in 2018 and also packages in BiB.
The first to do so was Brouwerij Girardin. The brewery and farm has been in the Girardin family since 1882, and roughly 100 years later, they began putting Lambic in a box after fourth-generation owner Paul Girardin had the idea.
“My husband started up the project with the Bag-in-Boxes for our Lambic in the early eighties, around 1983,” says Paul’s wife Heidi. “We were probably the first brewery in the world to sell our beer in BiBs. As Lambic in our region is also called a grain wine (and Gueuze the Champagne of the Pajottenland), my husband got the idea to sell Lambic in Bag-in-Boxes. Our first Bag-in-Boxes came from France. My husband drove himself several times to France to collect the first deliveries.”
Also with roots in 1882 is Oud Beersel, which operated through four generations until the fifth had no interest in continuing the business in 2002. In 2005, however, the brand was relaunched with new owners. Co-owner Gert Christiaens soon realized why BiB is ideal for Lambics.
“In the past we had bars in the region that served Lambic straight from the wooden barrel,” he says. “So the brewery bought the [250-liter] wooden barrel[s] to the bar, and put them in the basement, and the bar owner put the tap in the barrel, and he’d step by step [decant] the barrel into a jug, pouring straight Lambic for his customers.”
As romantic as hand-poured Lambic from the barrel sounds, it isn’t the most practical solution. The barrel’s weight and size are only one of the logistical problems.
“When the Lambic wooden barrel goes down, the void is filled with air,” Christiaens says. Oxygen means oxidation, and with high temperatures it produces more acetic acidity. “It gets quality problems for the Lambic that remains on the barrel, especially after a few weeks.”
When Christiaens opened Oud Beersel’s doors, the old problem of selling Lambic to locals soon became apparent. Customers started turning up with plastic bottles, expecting them to be filled with straight Lambic.
“We received the elder generation of Lambic buyers who wanted straight Lambic from the wooden barrels. We had the same problem as the bars—if we take some Lambic off for these people, then the Lambic that’s remaining from the barrel isn’t going to be the best Lambic anymore.”
Now they empty one barrel into boxes—not just for locals, but for the international market as well. They send small amounts around Europe, as far as Australia, and have label approval for the U.S. market. Christiaens thinks BiB is an exciting space to tap into (pun definitely intended), and the company has gone as far as to design a small fridge, created specifically to hold three Lambic bags, known as a “Beer Box.” The parallel development of bags that can handle additional pressure gives Oud Beersel the ability to push further into the space (pun also intended).
“Our Lambic is not pasteurized; we have Brettanomyces in there, we have microorganisms, and these continue producing some carbonation,” he says. “A small amount, but over time a small amount builds up and creates pressure in the box. After a while they start leaking, breaking, or the box starts to become swollen, round, and no one wants to buy them.”
“We used to work with bags at three bars of pressure,” he continues. “Now we work with five bars of pressure-resistant bags.”
To further set itself apart from other Lambic producers, Oud Beersel recently launched a line it’s calling “infused Lambic,” which admittedly sounds more appropriate for an iced-tea brand dreamed up by a marketer than a Lambic producer whose history dates back to the late 1800s. Christiaens, however, hopes the new fridges combined with the infusions means that Oud Beersel’s beer will appeal to new bars and a changing market.
“The beer market has been flooded with variations on IPA, IPA and more IPAs, but the market is looking more and more to traditional products with a modern touch to it," Christiaens says. “I think the Beer Box is a nice way, especially with the infused Lambics—it taps into what customers want.”
The infused Lambic has so far been flavored with rose petals, lapsang souchong (smoked Chinese tea), or Earl Grey. They have been introduced as an addition to Oud Beersel’s Oude Lambic, Faro (sweetened Lambic), and Kriekenlambiek (cherry Lambic) products, which are also boxed up. In a campaign that seems as foreign to Lambic as lapsang souchong, the producer has been running a “YOU CHOOSE | WE INFUSE” promotion on social media, whereby drinkers nominate their own preferred flavorings.
Christiaens says boxed Lambic will continue to evolve slightly as it ages and, unlike bottles, shouldn’t be kept longer than two years. Which, in an era where one-week-old beer seems ancient to some, is still a long time.
Though Belgian Lambic producers and British Real Ale brewers are unlikely to be confused, they do share affection for BiB. The Lancashire-based Avid Brewing Co. is one such brewery that uses the system, in part because of how easily Bag-in-Box products can be enjoyed outdoors.
“We put the bags in plastic boxes and cool them in the cellar first, or you can get styrofoam-insulated boxes for food and drinks, and we’ve just modified them with a hole so the tap sticks out,” co-founder David Cross says. “We just chill them in the cellar first, and you can keep your beer proper temperature for about half a day.”
Avid uses BiB with a Vitop tap, which allows it to connect to a beer engine for dispensing via handpump. (The Vitop tap system is simply a plastic tap that is affixed to the bag during construction; it also makes a connector for handpump beer engines.)
“I find that pubs are putting one cask line with a Vitop on, and rotating through the weird and wonderful beers,” Cross says. “Traditional pubs are trying Imperial Stouts and Irish Coffee Stouts. We do some weird beers in small batches and we are finding small pubs are trying it risk-free and then getting cask in. It’s a gateway for us.”
It’s this style of tap that enables BiB to set itself apart from other dispense methods. For the bar market there are other related products, such as KeyKeg, which consists of a bag in a big plastic keg. There are also home products like the new Bagnum, which is a 1.5-liter pouch filled with wine (and, here in Australia, pre-batched Negroni mix). The KeyKeg isn’t designed for home, and the Bagnum isn’t designed for bar usage. But the humble bag of goon can do it all.
Cross says they came across the Bag-in-Box system when they were starting out in 2017 and looking for a way to get their beer out in small quantities with relative ease. The product has also been adopted by cider makers and other real ale producers across pockets of the U.K. where both products are popular. Avid even maintains a reciprocal beer-swap program with other British breweries of “similar size and quality” to help spread each other’s beer further. Cross says they will fill bags from other breweries, with their blessing, for Avid’s local market.
While he concedes that some cask ale purists may not see the product as “true cask,” he has only found issue with one pub that wouldn’t put it on. Another problem is that BiB doesn’t technically qualify for Cask Marque, an accreditation system for cask beer pubs around the world. Cross isn’t too worried, however.
“I don’t choose a pub based on Cask Marque; I choose it based on personal experience and recommendation,” he says.
For him, the benefits outweigh these minor negatives, most notably the reduction in oxygen once the beer is tapped. Cross uses BiB dispense at home himself, and has found beer that was previously opened then put back in the cupboard still tastes as good as when it was fresh, even at ambient temperatures. Avid also maintains a "milk-bottle" style delivery service, which sees it install handpumps in private homes and deliver replacement bags when needed.
Over on the other side of the Altantic, BiB is also taking hold. 18 months ago, Primitive Beer launched in Longmont, Colorado; since its opening, it has sold its products in BiB packaging. Founders Lisa and Brandon Boldt hold back stock of all releases, and check them regularly for quality. Though they are monitoring for any drastic changes, they say they have yet to find any 18 months in.
At Primitive, the couple spontaneously ferment Lambic-influenced beer, and use local fruits and herbs as well as ex-spirit and -wine barrels. If Belgium has guided their beer choices, it has also inspired their packaging. The couple fell in love with BiB when visiting the country, and muled back multiple boxes of Lambic at a time.
As we chat, I tell them about Oud Beersel’s plans; despite the fact that the video on our Skype call is frozen, I can hear the excitement on their faces. In addition to Belgium, Brandon spent some time in Brisbane, where he learned all about goon of fortune. They explain to me (a New Zealander who lives in Australia) that the American version is known as “slap the bag.”
“You take it straight out of the box, and you slap it, and you drink it. We did it in college with bagged wine,” Lisa says. “We say that it activates the flavors, but that’s bullshit,” she laughs.
For the Boldts, packaging in an unusual system is one way to establish intent.
“We knew that our role being this weird brewer where we live is to educate people on this kind of beer we are making,” Lisa says. “They’re not going to come in knowing that it should be flat. So we knew we were going to hurt our ability to be accepted if we didn’t have a really obviously flat packaging method.”
Brandon adds that selling BiB products—not to mention serving cellar-temperature, uncarbonated, Lambic-style beer out of casks—doesn’t “allow consumers any point of comfort.” Their size and local business model mean that these challenges aren’t a great hurdle, however; communication with the customer is usually direct, rather than transmitted via a product on a shelf.
Primitive is just one of many beverage producers who are envisioning a new future for BiB. No longer is the packaging format a staple of low-brow parties and the cause of college blackouts. Instead, it’s being recast as a new and more perfect opportunity to take your booze to all kinds of far-flung destinations; to give it a portability designed to match a busy, active way of life.
“We happen to be in an outdoorsy and concert-centric area,” Brandon says. “If people want to take beer with them backpacking or on a river trip or even to a lot of concert venues that don’t allow glass, this is another way for our beverage to go off the beaten trail.”