Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

A clear pint of Bass pale ale.

In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.

It is a fairly short essay which first appeared in Visual References: An International Journal of Documentation in November 2012 and is readily available to anyone with access to an academic library. (We managed to see a copy through a more roundabout route.)

There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:

The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.

That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.

The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:

Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.

We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.

Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?

26 thoughts on “Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s”

  1. Ah glad you enjoyed the article.
    Clarity is one of those issues in beers that is currently roundly dividing the ‘craft beer’ camp, and the more mainstream beer consumer. I’ve long felt that when the craft community seeks constant innovation, what it is in fact doing is bringing itself further away from what the mainstream consumer actually looks for in a beer. Whereas a clear beer is something the consumer looks for, the craft enthusiast forgives a certain amount of haze. It’s interesting to see that haziness has been seen as a fault for so long, and it certainly reinforces this point slightly.

    The growth of hazy beer is fine for us, but as we see from articles in the Telegraph like this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/beer/11696700/Pint-smelling-a-bit-off-How-to-spot-a-bad-beer.html – it is still seen as a fault by many.

    I’m going to relate this quickly to some of the things as a Market Researcher know about buying decisions. Whenever we make a buying decision, we judge something by what we know about the product – we quite literally recall a series of preferences and points of knowledge. Most of these points are largely immovable until either we have a product that we enjoy that sways that decision, or we are primed against the knowledge. The only successful priming operation we have in operation in craft beer at the moment is in canning and kegging, where vast amounts of effort have been made into swaying the consumer that what have been seen as bad practice for years are, if not better practice, then equally preferable practice.

    We haven’t had that operation in other changes in craft beer e.g. price differences (we have to a point, although the limits of this price difference are now being stretched), clarity, sourness, etc. To the ‘uninitated’ consumer, it is likely that the vast array of choice in a pub or bottle shop, many of which are expensive, or sour, or hazy, will come as a shock to the system or just turn people off it. As brewers, in many instances, brew to our needs, rather than the mainstream consumer, it may serve to marginalize the brand, rather than making craft beer more mainstream.

    Sorry I kind of went off on one then, but I’m writing something up at the moment…

    1. That seems like a pragmatic business issue, though. There are currently dozens of hard-pressed craft-y breweries jockeying for distribution and bar space in the UK and trying to get their sales out beyond specialist craft beer bars – if the general public have an appetite for cold, hoppy beer but prefer it to be pin bright (one for your cliche albums, there) then some of them will presumably start filling that gap in the market fairly soon. And conversely if no-one makes much of a success of doing that then it’ll be reasonable to conclude that people who actually like heavily hopped beers don’t expect them to be clear.

      I find it a bit weird that some people turn something which is basically about personal preference into a sort of moral crusade…

      1. I am very forgiving, and couldn’t care about haziness, or whatever as an individual. I will use, however, a very real example of a beer that divided opinions – that example was SIren’s Life is a Peach. Life is a peach doesn’t so much pour cloudy as lumpy: there are physical bits floating in it. It was only after checking with the brewers themselves that I realised that the beer was supposed to pour that way – it was peach flesh. Somebody with less product knowledge is likely to reject a beer like that. There was no information anywhere that this was not a fault, but deliberate – even the bar staff were kind of stumped when I poured it (and this was in a specialist beer bar btw). It leads the consumer to an impasse: the brewer after all can’t come to the pub and yell at everyone that they’re wrong – although a tasting note on the bottle that says it may happen would’ve helped the situation.

        What I’m trying to say is that when brewers are making pragmatic business decisions, they are doing things with two groups in mind, those with high product knowledge (who are more accepting) and the mainstream market (who have a different product reference set when they make a decision). Every boundary that gets crossed for those with high product knowledge takes beer further from what the majority of people expect when they get a glass of beer: this at some point may become a problem for market growth. It isn’t at the moment, but it is a very small market still. The main sticking point I’m seeing as an individual for growth isn’t clarity btw, but price – it is now perfectly easy to find pints for >£10, which even I find hard to adapt to.

        While I don’t like Brew Dog at the best of time, at least as a sector the Craft Beer Alliance might bring people together to help educate the consumer in what they can expect in the glass.

        1. Again, I don’t really see this as a problem, though. Siren clearly haven’t got a crossover hit (to borrow the music industry term) on their hands with Life is a Peach. At a guess, that wasn’t what they were aiming for anyway – more of an underground classic. But there seem to be plenty of breweries out there who are interested in crossover potential and if clarity is what it takes to be successful then presumably clarity is what they’ll do.

          In other words, a preponderance hazy or cloudy beer is only going to hold back growth for as long as brewers want it to, and I can’t imagine that being particularly long.

          On the other hand, it might well be that drinkers don’t have a problem with cold, fizzy, hoppy beer not being clear anyway. They’ve managed to adapt to Hoegaarden, after all!

  2. Surely half the country must have tried a juicy, hazy craft beer by now and realised its infinitely nicer than the usual clear tasteless muck they get served up in bog-standard pubs? Craft beer is everywhere nowadays.

    1. It’s not everywhere by any stretch, in my city there is one pub that serves a very limited range of it. Most of the ‘gateway’ craft beers e.g. Brooklyn Lager, Punk IPA, etc aren’t cloudy at all anyway, so where people are encountering a limited range, then a more extended range will still provide some shocks.

  3. Unless you’ve got a lot more evidence than you’re letting on, I don’t think you can reasonably claim that “people have long preferred clear beer”, where ‘long’ is being defined as ‘over 125 years’. During the period that we do know about, beer has been a commercial, technical and cultural battleground; as historians we can look back and trace the battle lines being drawn, but claiming to be able to cut through the debate and identify some sort of underlying truth would be a bit rash.

    In your earlier post you quoted someone from the SPBW who regarded clarity as a sign the beer had been over-processed & spoiled: was that opinion based on personal experience, reaction against the promotion of clear beers by the big breweries or dogma? If it was dogma, where did the dogma come from? Why did the big breweries promote clear beer anyway – brewer’s preference, customer demand or just the technology? (If the pasteurising & kegging process had produced cloudy beer, would they have promoted that instead?) We can’t answer any of these questions definitively – it’s turtles all the way down.

    1. We do only say ‘increasingly convinced’ — it’s not a claim, as such.

      Lack of evidence is precisely the problem: we haven’t found sources, mid-19th century or earlier, in which people state an active *preference* for cloudy/hazy beer, though we do keep looking.

      1. I think I have to place the beginning of the public interest in clarity at the other end of the 1800s as brewing became (i) scientific and (ii) brewers were able to add new technologies which positioned them to distinguish between old dull plodding ale and exciting new lager. Because of the scale of investment as well as the reliance on a certain acceptance of German immigration or at least cultural influence, the shift takes decades. There is also the influence of gin and gin palaces in the 1700s at play underneath it all. But, yes, by the later 1800s you have progress: public health movements, acceptance of clear pure water, you have public advertising of holidaying at the coast with pure clear air. Why would you want a quart of thick cloudy stuff from a wooden barrel?

      2. Thing is, any time anyone bothers to write about beer they’re writing about an idea of beer, or an idea of something else that involves beer. As beer geeks we know that we’re working within a certain set of ideas & images about beer, and we also have a rough idea of the kind of information that’s usually conveyed by those ideas & images – or, more precisely, the different & competing kinds of information that are usually being put forward when those ideas are used. Hazy/cloudy/murky beer is a classic example – if Tandleman says he’s had a cloudy pint, we know which set of issues is being lined up, and we know it’s a different set than it would be if py used the same words. Beneath it all, we all agree (I think) that there is such a thing as beer that’s spoilt by having much more yeast in it than the brewer intended, and there is such a thing as an unfined beer which tastes brilliant, and there are many variations & grey areas in between.

        But if you go back fifty years, let alone a hundred or more, you aren’t necessarily going to know the lingo – you won’t necessarily know what’s going on when people use particular terms, or what the underlying information is that they’re trying to convey. Take ‘nut-brown ale’ (I’m not even going to get into ‘nutty’ as a flavour descriptor). I’m willing to bet that, up to about twenty years ago, ninety-nine writers out of a hundred who referred to ‘nut-brown ale’ didn’t choose that phrase as a way of describing its colour; what they were doing was evoking a pastoral image of English ale-drinking, which goes back to Milton and probably further. The information being conveyed is about conviviality and tradition, in other words, not about beer connoisseurship.

        If I had to speculate I’d imagine that references to beer as clear in the older literature would probably outweigh references to cloudy beer, but only because it’s easier to make clear beer sound nice – ‘murky’, ‘foggy’, ‘turbid’ just aren’t nice-sounding words. As to what people actually thought, I think historians can get glimpses of the mental world of a particular period – the piece you quote is a good example – but even then they have to tread carefully & may get it all wrong. When it comes to what people generally think, over long periods of time, I don’t think anyone knows anything.

  4. Can’t agree with Phil’s last paragraph. Based on my reading, English people always wanted clear beer. And I think this was because, all things equal, it tastes better than yeasty beer.

    Here is just one example, from 1807 but it is clear from the article the writer is attesting to experience and practice going well back into the 1700’s:

    https://books.google.ca/books?id=eUwoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA347&dq=muddy+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mPeSVfiwI82yyAS-xZ-wCQ&ved=0CFAQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=muddy%20beer&f=false

    He doesn’t state why “bright” beer is better, but one can only infer taste was the reason. After all, cloudy vs. clear has no inherent value system. I suppose one could argue that it does drawn from the weather, but I don’t believe that. (Farmers, who grow barley and hops, do like rain too after all).

    English beer shines the best (IMO of course) with the taste of hops and malt unclouded (sorry) with yeast bite and other by-product of brewing. A little veil in the beer doesn’t hurt, but bright in 1807 meant what it did in 1890 and what it does today.

    Gary

    1. It’s certainly true – and was as true in 1807 as it is today – that beer is sometimes cloudy because it’s been handled badly; if it’s clear you can at least be sure it isn’t cloudy for the wrong reason. A preference for clear good-quality beer over cloudy good-quality beer? I’m not sure.

  5. Changes in bottling processes – chilled and carbonated beer with no sediment – also kicked in just before 1900. Those beers – and the way they were advertised: :bright to the last drop” – must have helped change expectations, too.

    1. I agree but it must always be viewed in perspective: Ian Hornsey reports that approaching the 1930’s bottled beer sales were still only 25% of total beer sales. It would have been much less a generation earlier. I think two reasons explained this: first, the old preference for a clear pint (“pellucid”, “bright” are two adjectives used in the 1807 curio I mentioned), and second, the improvements in mass production of bottles circa-1900.

      The brewer’s vaunted clarity of their beer in bottles precisely because they knew people wanted this. Moritz, cited by B&B, acknowledge it at the end of the 1800’s even though he (contra to most brewing writers I’ve read) seems to feel an unclear pint does no harm to the palate and possibly au contraire.

      By the way, the American turn towards presenting the beer turbid may have its origins, not just in a misapprehension dating from the 80’s of what unfiltered means in English practice, but on palate grounds as well. Pacific North West hops being famously strong-tasting, many drinkers may prefer the taste to be balanced by yeast. So you have three main elements being balanced, malt, hops, yeast, vs. two in the English way. (I am far from suggesting yeast is unimportant to English beer, everyone knows that yeast background is vital in any beer particularly a top-fermented one, but as compared say to the Belgian taste, the English (and Scots and Irish) weren’t keen on a yeasty overlay in the drink. This opinion is based on years of sampling English ales before the inclusion of the APA style (mid-80’s to mid-2000’s) and extensive reading in old sources. Probably the first observation I read on clarity in English beer was Andrew Boorde’s observation quoted in an Early Jackson book on West Country white ale: it looks as if pigs wrestled in it. ’nuff said.

      Gary

      Gary

  6. “Ian Hornsey reports that approaching the 1930’s bottled beer sales were still only 25% of total beer sales.”

    They took more than their fair share of advertising space in newspapers and magazines, though, and often, as Ron suggests, with ‘golden’, ‘bright’, ‘clear’ etc. in the blurb.

    1. My point, or argument I guess, is they were appealing to a long-held, rooted feeling in the people – not creating the expectation. I am not aware of any popular source which praises cloudy beer before the current era, in fact. Even professional opinion seems almost unanimous on the subject.

      Gary

      1. I simply don’t believe in any “long-held rooted feeling in the people”, about anything. Everything changes. (A hundred years ago the caricature Republican voter was a college-educated East Coast liberal!) ‘White beer’ sounds like filth to us as well as to Andrew Boorde, but lots of people did like it – he wouldn’t have bothered to write about it otherwise. (And you should hear what he said about beer as opposed to ale. Also quite popular, and more enduringly so!)

        Nothing succeeds like success – and nothing looks as if it was always going to succeed like success that’s already happened. But history’s all about the dead ends and the defunct lineages as well as the winners’ stories. Look at the number of times lager was introduced into Britain. It certainly ‘took’ in the end, but would that have happened without the marketing push the big breweries gave it (or without the right kind of marketing), without the degradation in the quality of keg bitter, without the politicisation of beer by CAMRA (repelling a younger generation of drinkers), without the summer of ’76…? We can’t know.

  7. Certainly true that white ale was popular for a long time in the West, but it died out pretty early… (mid-1800’s), so I’d infer that when people could get conventional ales they dispensed with it. There are many more examples of the importance of clarity (one of from 1880’s, bottled Bass vs. cloudy bottled Bass, years before the ubiquity of the ads in question, also a statement from Frank Faulkner which we’ve discussed before), etc.

    It doesn’t mean some drinkers didn’t like it the other way, sure. I think it’s a fair point though that there should be some surviving evidence that some people didn’t want beer to drop bright, a brewery here or there which insisting no finings be used, say, a pub which took pride in serving its beers cloudy, something of that nature, or something parallel in England to wheat beers in Germany or Keller Bier and similar types.

    I cannot recall ever reading anything on those lines, but lots to the contrary….

    Gary

    1. You make white ale by adding flour and eggs to the wort (presumably when it’s fairly cool), so it’s not a question of making do with something cloudy; they put quite a bit of effort into making it come out looking like porridge.

      Fair point about finings, dropping bright etc, although there’s a difference between wanting the beer to look clear because then you can be sure it’s ready to drink & wanting it to look clear as a virtue in itself. I suspect the latter – & anyone caring much about what beer looked like – is a modern thing, dating from the kind of period the article is talking about. But I admit that it weakens my case that I haven’t got any examples of people talking about how delightfully turbid & twiggy the beer used to be!

      1. “But I admit that it weakens my case that I haven’t got any examples of people talking about how delightfully turbid & twiggy the beer used to be!”

        That’s the kind of thing we’re looking out for. Between us, we’ve slogged through tons of newspapers articles and books and if there was a preference for cloudy beer, even if it was a minority opinion, we’d have expected to come across *something* by now. We haven’t given up looking, though.

  8. Lack of a computer does not allow extensive comment but by and large I agree with Gary, like a lot of what Phil says and agree you guys are right to make the general point about clarity in the way you do.

    Liked what Sam said too.

  9. I would add another question. It may not be sufficient to seek sources praising clairity or murkiness. In the period befor scientific brewing, beer was inconsistent and accepted a range of variation. In the Vassar book from NY state in the 1830s, there is notation on each batch as to how successful each brewing was. Each is sold but some are clearly finer in some quality or another. At that time, agricultural fairs and other forms of popular interest in production improvement are in their early years. There are no such notations in the 1808-11 book for the same brewery. Going further back, there are references to good beer being thicker. So it appears quite probable that before a certain point people would have been delighted to drink a particularly good batch of clear ale but at the same time happily accept a less clear batch as within the range of acceptability. As techical achievement advances it raises the standard, the range of acceptability would shift until in the 1950s and ’60s acceptability suggests the refinement of process required for white bread and white sugar.

    1. Alan, thicker here surely means in body (not haziness). If you mean some people would prefer a hazy beer with body to one that is clear and thin-tasting (or too weak), I agree with that, but the drinkers I think would have regarded it as lesser of two evils. In that short 1807 article – other side of the pond but American brewing was still English in tone as you’ve shown in your work, the writer at least three times referred to the importance of beer being bright, once by using that term; a second time by using the term pellucid, and a third time by comparing beer to sherry. Some sources speak of golden sherry, still made I think by Brights (that’s a Canuck thing, non-Canadians). I guess though Phil and the other view still had a point, porter may be some proof. Even though some writers on porter and stout (1800’s) insisted porter should be clear, it is known that much of it was not, e.g., Ron has shown this by those circa WW I tables where a brightness score is not addressed because for practical purposes you couldn’t assess porter on that basis. Still, porter and stout almost died out in England, too. Sorry, but it’s true! 🙂 (With the dark mild of the 20th century you can still tell if it’s murky).

      Gary

      Gary

      1. Porter did effectively die out, but only in the 1970s. I think Ron’s Whitbread tasting notes for pale ales, which did include clarity – and showed no correlation between clarity and flavour quality – are more relevant. The 1807 document is interesting, but it’s written from the point of view of a brewer who wants to avoid faults which make beer hazy (the ‘yeast soup’ effect). That doesn’t mean that, between two equally well-made beers, he’d prefer the one that was clear because of the way it looked – just that he’d probably avoid the hazy one out of the suspicion that it wasn’t well-made. I tend to avoid beers that are flagged as hazy myself for precisely this reason – the haze that’s supposed to be makes it harder to spot any haze that shouldn’t be there.

Comments are closed.