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A barrel or cask is a hollow conical container, traditionally made of vertical wooden staves and bound by wooden or metal hoops. Traditionally, the barrel was a standard size of measure referring to a set capacity or weight of a given commodity. For example, a beer barrel was originally a 36 gallon capacity while an ale barrel was a 32 gallon capacity. Wine was shipped in a 31.5 gallon barrels. Barrels are one size of cask. Other cask sizes include, but are not limited to, pins, firkins, kilderkins, puncheons, rundlets, tierces, pipes, butts, and tuns. Someone who makes barrels is a cooper. Modern barrels are also made of aluminium and plastic.


In Europe in ancient times liquids like oil and wine were carried in vessels, for instance amphora, sealed with pine resin. The Romans began to use barrels in the 3rd century AD, as a result of their commercial and military contacts with the Gauls, who had been making barrels for several centuries.

For nearly 2,000 years barrels were the most convenient form of shipping or storage container for those who could afford the superior price. All kinds of bulk goods, from nails to gold coins, were stored in them. Bags and most crates were cheaper, but they were not as sturdy and they were more difficult to manhandle for the same weight. Barrels slowly lost their importance in the 20th century, with the introduction of pallet-based logistics and containerization.

Starting in the late 19th century, barrels were largely superseded by corrugated fiberboard boxes for storage and transport of dry goods, and in the mid 20th century, steel drums began to be used for the storage and transport of fluids such as water, oils and hazardous waste. Barrels are still used today for artistic presentation of merchandise in many stores, although these barrels are often merely decorative, and not made water-tight.


Barrels are used for the storage of liquids, from simple water to ferment wine, to age wine (notably brandy, sherry and port) and whiskey.

For storage of water

Water barrels are often used to collect the rainwater from dwellings (so that it may be used for irrigation or other purposes). This usage, known as rainwater harvesting requires (besides a large rainwater barrel), an adequate (water-proof) roof-covering and an adequate rain pipe.

For storage of oil

The standard barrel of crude oil or other petroleum product (abbreviated bbl) is 42 US gallons (34.972 Imperial gallons or 158.987 L). This measurement originated in the early Pennsylvaniamarker oil fields, and permitted both British and American merchants to refer to the same unit, based on the old English wine measure, the tierce.

Earlier, another size of whiskey barrel was the most common size; this was the barrel for proof spirits, which was of the same volume as 5 US bushels. However, by 1866 the oil barrel was standardized at 42 US gallons.

Oil has not actually been shipped in barrels [67458] since the introduction of oil tankers, but the 42-US-gallon size is still used as a unit for measurement, pricing, and in tax and regulatory codes. Each barrel is refined into about 19.74 gallons of gasoline, the rest becoming other products such as jet fuel and heating oil, using fractional distillation.

The current standard volume for barrels for chemicals and food is .

For aging of beverages

Wine barrels in Napa Valley, California.

Some wine is fermented "in barrel," as opposed to a neutral container such as a steel or concrete tank. Wine can also be fermented in large wooden tanks, often called "open-tops" because they are open to the atmosphere. Other wooden cooperage for storing wine or spirits are called "casks", and they are large (up to thousands of gallons) with either elliptical or round heads.

Other uses

Due to the traditional barrel's distinctive shape and construction method, the term has been used to describe a variety of other related or similar objects, such as the gun barrel (with the term growing out of the fact that early cannon were built from staves of metal hooped together, similar to a barrel) and barrel organ.

The English idiom over a barrel means to be in a predicament or helpless in a situation where others are in control: "I have no choice in the matter — my creditors have me over a barrel." The phrase is said to originate from two 19th century practices: rolling drowning victims over a barrel to clear their lungs of water, or flogging someone who is bent over a barrel.

Some kinds of food, such as pork, were stored in barrels in larders before the era of refrigerators. This practice generated a political term, pork barrel, in which earmarks for particular people or locations were labeled "pork-barrel" spending.


Barrels often have a convex shape, bulging at the middle. This constant bulge makes it easier to roll a well-built wooden barrel on its side, changing directions with little friction. It also helps to distribute stress evenly in the material by making the container more spherical .

Casks used for ale or beer have shives and keystone in their openings. Before serving the beer a spile is hammered into the shive and a tap into the keystone.

The "chine hoop" is the iron hoop nearest the end of a wooden barrel, the "bilge hoops" those nearest the bulge, or centre.

The stopper used to seal the hole in a barrel is called the bung.


English traditional, wine

Pre-1824 definitions continued to be used in the US, the wine gallon of 231 cubic inches being the standard gallon for liquids (the corn gallon of 268.8 cubic inches for solids). In Britainmarker that gallon was replaced by the Imperial gallon.The tierce later became the petrol barrel.The tun was originally 256 gallons, which explains where the quarter, 8 bushels or 64 (wine) gallons, comes from.

Sizes for UK beer

Although it is common to refer to draught beer containers of any size as barrels, in the UKmarker this is strictly correct only if the container holds 36 imperial gallons. The terms "keg" and "cask" refer to containers of any size, the distinction being that kegs are used for beers intended to be served using external gas cylinders. Cask ales undergo part of their fermentation process in their containers, called casks.

Casks are available in several sizes, and it is common to refer to "a firkin" or "a kil" (kilderkin) instead of a cask.

Sizes for US beer and ale

The modern US beer barrel is 31 US gallons (116.34777 litres), half a gallon less than the traditional wine barrel. (26 U.S.C. §5051[67459])

See also


  1. [1]
  2. What's In A Barrel of Oil?
  3. A History of Warfare - Keegan, John, Vintage 1993

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