Bristol: Ground Zero for Guinness in England

“In 1819 a sailing vessel ex-Dublin discharged ten barrels of Guinness porter in Bristol. It was the first bulk order for England that can be traced in the Guinness books. This was probably the first sign of the imminent expansion of the Guinness company. One might have expected this token invasion to have started at Liverpool for it is a short haul of 140 miles from St James’s Gate to the Mersey, but twice that distance to Bristol.”

The above comes from an article in Guinness Time, the in-house magazine of Guinness’s London brewery at Park Royal, for the summer of 1966. It goes on to explain that the Guinness family had relations in Bristol which might explain the oddity, but also suggests other more likely reasons: the North West was locked down by big brewers for one thing, and Bristol was effectively the nation’s second city at that time.

Dockside scene with huge Guinness tanks.
The Pluto unloading in Bristol c.1966.

In 1966, Bristol was still a major destination for Guinness, with two ships arriving every week from Dublin, carrying between 1,400 and 2,000 barrels each. Pluto (998 tons) set out from Dublin every Friday, stopping on the way at Waterford to pick up Draught Guinness tankards from the glassworks there, arriving in Bristol at 8 on Monday morning. Her sister, Dido, at 1,598 tons, arrived in Bristol every Thursday.

The Guinness Store, AKA the Dublin Store, was on Broad Quay (the long low building at the waterside, pictured above in 1910) and held the beer at 10°C ready for dispatch in bulk for bottling at 23 breweries in the region. It also held Harp Lager and Draught Guinness kegs from the brewery London. Intriguingly, there were apparently three pubs in the region still receiving ‘unpressurised Draught Guinness’ (so, cask-conditioned?) direct from Dublin at this time. We’ll have to see if we can find out which ones.

Harry Mico (seated) and his foreman, Wally Loud.

The head office for Guinness in the West Country was at Clifton, covering Swindon to Land’s End, as well as South Wales. Harry Mico, a veteran Guinness man who joined the company in 1924, managed the Store, while the Western Sales Area manager who L.J.G. Showers, a former Gurkha officer shipped back to England from India after 1947. The Bristol Office manager was Brian Vernall, a former brewer and marketing man who got the job when his predecessor in Bristol died in 1965.

We’ll have to investigate what, if anything, is left of Guinness’s operation in Bristol. The Store has certainly gone, the Quay filled in and the road diverted, but perhaps there might be some trace of the office in Clifton.

In the meantime, we’re going to have to find a pint of cask stout somewhere in Bristol this weekend.

Nips & Nipperkins

Men drinking from nip bottles.
Detail from a 1950s advertisement for Ind Coope Arctic Ale in nip bottles.

Until quite recently strong beer was often sold in so-called ‘nip bottles’ but what volume of liquid the word nip represented isn’t straightforward, it turns out.

In his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose doesn’t list nip but does have this rather wonderful related entry:

"A fmall meafure".

By the time a new edition came out in 1788 nip had been added:

"A half pint, a nyp of ale"

We think what he’s saying here is that nipperkin (the vessel) derives from nip (the measure) although other sources suggest the derivation runs the other way. Either way, Grose is quite specific and clear: a nip is half a pint. That doesn’t seem to have changed in subsequent editions published in the decades that followed, even as the text was expanded and corrected.

Other 18th and 19th century dictionaries give the same or similar definitions for nip or nipperkin, too. Here’s Thomas Dyche’s of 1735:

Dictionary entry for Nipperkin.

Just to confuse things, though, this 1725 Canting Dictionary suggests that a nipperkin referred to half a pint of wine but ‘half a Quartern of Brandy, Strong Waters [spirits], &c.’ Half a quartern is insanely confusing — half a quarter of a pint, we think. At any rate, it suggests that nipperkin (and thus nip) was not tied to a specific volume but rather meant a relatively small measure of whichever drink you happened to be ordering. ‘Oh, go on then, just a cheeky…’ is implied.

When the Weights & Measures Act of 1824 was passed it did not include the nip/nipperkin among the new standard Imperial units of volume which meant that, legally speaking at least, it ceased to exist.

There’s talk of it having lived on in practice (PDF) through the conservatism of customers and/or sharp practice by publicans and it certainly lingered in song. Here’s the now standard text of ‘The Barley Mow’ a version of which was first transcribed in 1855 (PDF):

Here’s good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Jolly good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Refrain: the pint pot, half a pint, gill pot, half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and the brown bowl.
Here’s good luck (good luck!), good luck to the barley mow.

The song works by ramping up the size of the drink with each verse which gives us a handy ranking. Here, the nipperkin has become almost the smallest imaginable measure of beer, less than ⅛ of a pint.

Its resurgence as the nip bottle seems to have come in the early 20th century and especially between the wars, if the frequency of its appearance in newspapers is a reliable indicator. Here’s a helpful summary of what nip had come to mean by this time from a 1939 report on licensing in the Leicester Daily Mercury for 4 April that year:

The definition of a ‘nip’ bottle of beer figured in the application by Messrs. Offiler, of Derby, for the confirmation of a beer off-licence… Making the application, Mr Geoffrey Barnett asked if the sale of ‘nip’ botles could be allowed, and Mr Woolley asked what a ‘nip’ bottle was.

Mr Barnett said it was a well-known term in the trade, and the bottle contained less than half a pint.

By the 1960s when Thomas Hardy’s Ale was launched by Eldridge Pope, along with pints and half-pints there were also nip bottles on offer containing about 180ml, or somewhere near a third of a pint. This seems to have been the industry standard although Courage IRS came in 170ml bottles and there were probably other variants around too.

In recent years, though, what we might think of as nip bottles because they look oddly tiny next to the now standard 330ml container are often as big as 250ml or even 275ml. Can we say, perhaps, that nip inflation is taking us back to where we started?

As ever, corrections are very welcome, especially if they point to contemporary or otherwise reliable sources as evidence.

Further Reading #1: The Newcastle Beerpendium

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. We barely got to scratch the surface in the book so this series of blog posts is intended to highlight some great resources you can go and look up yourself.

Our first stop is the City Library in Newcastle upon Tyne which we visited for a couple of pleasant sessions in June 2016. The top floor reference collection has a nice collection of books on the region’s pubs, most packed with photos and anecdotes, like this from Brian Bennison’s Heavy Nights, published in 1997:

In Gosforth High St the County Hotel was owned by James Deuchar before [Scottish & Newcastle]. One significant change took place in 1975 when the sanctity of the Gents’ Buffet was breached after what was thought to have been 140 years of ‘men only’. The day the Sex Discrimination Act came into force three female journalists entered the Gents’ Buffet to push the boat out with an order of one glass of cider and two fruit juices. The landlord told them, “You realise you’ve just made history in here. It’s a sad day.”

The real star of the show, though, is a huge scrapbook of newspaper clippings and leaflets. Archivists rightly protest when people claim to have ‘unearthed’ something which they, the librarians, found, bound and catalogued years ago, and this collection is a great example of their work. It contains early Tyneside CAMRA leaflets, for example — the kind of thing that most people threw away or lost when their guidance ceased to be useful but that someone thought to keep and preserve.

Good Pub Guide c.1975

From the above, undated but c.1975 we’d guess, it becomes clear how dominant Bass was in the region and that the Mitre at Benwell (second on the list) and the Duke of Wellington in Newcastle city centre were the most notable ‘beer exhibition’ pubs.

The news cuts tell interesting stories, too, such as the offence taken in the region in 1971 when analyses of beer strength undertaken by Durham County Weights and Measures Inspectors revealed that the North East’s beer was rather weaker than popularly imagined.

HEADLINE: "We're Weak Beer Snobs!"

This article also contains a table of the original gravity, ABV and price-per-pint of every beer sold in the region. (Which we think we’ve already shared with Ron Pattinson…)

There’s a story from 1976 about a two-day CAMRA beer festival in Durham with no less than fifteen different ales, but not Tetley, which refused to supply the event because they feared the beer ‘would not be served properly’. That’s followed by a review of the event by John North for the Northern Echo:

There was a feller professing to be the Earl of Derby’s nephew, another who’d struggled there on crutches, and a third who carried round an empty Castrol GTX can, presumably in case he needed to take a few samples home… The senior man at St Chad’s College arrived in knee-length shorts and near knee-length hair; the wife of a bookshop owner in Saddler Street came in a Pickwickian dress; a lot of men wore light blue CAMRA tee-shirts over tight brown bellies and a young lady had the peculiar message ‘Lubby, lubby, lubby’ emblazoned across her chest… In one corner a bearded man sat engrossed in his Times crossword, automatically reaching out every few seconds to grab his Hook Norton’s.

(An early manifestation of the bellies and beards stereotype?)

One final item worth highlighting is the arrival in 1977 of Tsing-Tao at the Emperor Restaurant, run by Arthur King who came to Newcastle from Hong Kong as a child in the 1940s. The Journal had great fun with the crazy idea of Geordies drinking beer from China and got a few locals to taste it, like 71-year-old pensioner Albert Smith:

It’s very good: a soft, smooth tasting drink… But at 40p a bottle it’s too expensive for people like me to drink. And it’s a long way to take the bottle back.

Beyond the stuff specifically relating to beer and pubs there are also, for example, decades’ worth of issues of local society magazine Newcastle Life packed with ads for local pubs, clubs and breweries. (Main picture, top.)

If you live in the North East and fancy learning about your region’s beer history, or if you’re in Newcastle as a beer tourist and need something to do between your smashed avocado toast and the pub opening, do pop in and take a look at this fascinating collection.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 October 2017: Lost & Grounded, Guinness, Heisler

Here’s all the writing that’s entertained, educated or amused us in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from marketing disasters to beer nerds in the wild.

For Good Beer Hunting Matt Curtis profiles Bristol brewery Lost & Grounded, putting them into context in terms of both the beer scene and their place in this particular city:

Keller Pils is one of two Lagers in Lost and Grounded’s core range, which, unusually—and perhaps bravely, giving to their current popularity—for a modern British brewery, doesn’t include a single Pale Ale or IPA… [The] German-leaning styles that lead Lost and Grounded’s portfolio are joined by beers including Hop-Hand Fallacy, a Belgian-influenced Farmhouse Ale, and No Rest for Dancers, a Dubbel masquerading on tap lists as a Red Ale. Although the influences in Lost and Grounded’s beers are clear, they also each have a point of difference that sets them apart.

(We probably latched on to this piece especially because, despite having been in Bristol ourselves for several months, we’ve still only just scratched the surface of what’s going on with its beer.)


Guinness Light

This next piece was published on 3 October but we noticed it too late for last week’s round-up. It’s an extract from a memoir by marketing consultant David Gluckman who in 1974 worked with Guinness to work out why nobody wanted to drink a new product called Guinness Light that market research had promised would be a huge hit:

Everything was perhaps best explained by a single young man we interviewed in one of our focus groups in Galway. He described his first encounter with Guinness Light: “I walked into my local bar and it was decked out with Guinness Light material. It was everywhere: posters, and beer mats. There were even special Guinness Light pint glasses. It all struck a chord. I remembered seeing a TV advert for it and I decided to order a pint. It appeared in its special glass and looked pretty tasty. But as I put it to my lips a hand tapped me gently on the shoulder and a man said ‘You’re cheating. You’re drinking ladies’ Guinness.’”


A Vermont tap room.
One of Sarah Priestap’s photographs accompanying the Washington Post article.

And while we’re at it, here’s another piece from just the wrong side of last weekend: for the Washington Post Jason Wilson gives an account of a tour of Vermont breweries undertaken in the company of his beer geek brother where the obnoxiousness of the culture overwhelmed them:

We wander outside to the deck, and as we sip, a short guy in a long coat with a trimmed beard stands next to us holding forth to his significantly taller girlfriend and another couple, all of them in their 20s. “So she had a 10 percent sour double bock, and I ordered a barley wine. And I was, like, so surprised. I mean, does anyone still make a barley wine?” Ha-ha-ha-ha, they all laugh. I hear plenty of wine snobs and cocktail snobs hold forth all the time. But rarely do I get a chance to hear a beer snob in his natural habitat, peacocking in full roar. Tyler and I edge closer to eavesdrop.

“So how long have you guys been into beer?” asks the beer snob’s friend.

“Oh, at least since 2013, 2014. I mean, my dad was a beer drinker, but never anything good.” Yuengling is his dad’s favorite beer. “I mean, Yuengling is okayyy … if there’s nothing else in the fridge.” Chuckles all around. “I mean, they use caramel malt, but at least you can drink it and not be repulsed.” More chuckles.

We’re including this piece beacause it’s nicely written, not because we agree with it, by the way. So often, these articles about the ‘winefication of beer’ are written remotely — hacked together listicles or Hot Takes — and this piece benefits from field reporting and the personal angle. Having said that, it still reads to us like two judgemental beer nerds being judgemental about other beer nerds. But perhaps that’s the joke.


1950s TV.

We first spotted the fictional Heisler beer in an episode of My Name is Earl about a decade ago and have been fascinated by it. For Draft magazine Zach Fowle investigates the Hollywood prop house that makes not only Heisler but also Cerveza Clare, Pensburg and the classic Premium Light:

Real-world breweries pay big bucks to have their brands represented on-screen—it cost Heineken a reported $45 million to get James Bond to forego his trademark vodka martini for one of the brewery’s stubby green bottles in the 2012 movie Skyfall. But even if the money behind product placement is substantial, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. That’s because beer—which has been known, on occasion, to get people drunk and do silly things—is often used as a plot device that breweries might not approve of…


A nice little story: a few months ago we watched a conversation unfold on Twitter about the beer being pulled in an archive photo of the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh — what was Leith Heavy, and how might someone go about reviving it? Last week author Ian Rankin pulled the first pint of a version of the beer brewed by Steven Hope with the blessing of the original brewer’s daughter.


A thought-provoking nugget: on the one hand, we have bigger breweries aping the look and feel of ‘craft’; on the other, there are small American breweries trying to evoke the everyman appeal of ‘macro’. The lines are grow ever more blurred.


Brewery takeover news: Western Australian brewery Feral has been acquired by Coca-Cola Amatil, a major soft drinks manufacturer which bottles Coke in Asia and the region. (Via The Crafty Pint.)


And finally, via Twitter, a new craft brewing manifesto from Denmark:

The Mainstreaming of Grapefruit Beer

Grapefruit from a 1953 US government publication.

Back in 2013 the idea of putting actual grapefruit into beer seemed quite hilarious — a stunt, a play on the grapefruit character of certain hop varieties.

But somehow, probably because it filled a gap in the market between alcopop and Serious Beer, it stuck and became a craft beer staple. (Definition 2.) Now it’s even made its way out of that walled community so that in 2017 it seems easier to get a grapefruit beer than a pint of mild.

BrewDog Elvis Juice, a grapefruit boosted IPA first launched in 2016, is in almost every supermarket in the land — even the funny little ones that otherwise only sell bog roll and sandwiches — at less than £2 a bottle. We weren’t sure if we liked it at first — “Eugh! It’s like someone’s put a splash of Robinson’s squash in it.” — but somehow it keeps ending up in the fridge, and keeps getting drunk. It’s got a palate cleansing quality, or perhaps palate defibrillating would be more accurate, and there’s just something fun about it. That the base IPA is good in its own right doesn’t hurt.

Adnams/M&S grapefruit IPA
SOURCE: M&S website

Out in West Cornwall we didn’t have easy access to Marks & Spencer so missed out on some of the fun of their revitalised beer range. Here in Bristol it’s much easier to grab the odd can or bottle while we’re out and about which is how we came to try the Grapefruit session IPA brewed for them by Adnams and available at £2 for 330ml, or less as part of multibuy offers. Would we have identified it as an Adnams beer if we’d tasted it blind? Probably not, but it does have some of their signature funk. It’s not thrilling or brainbending, just a decent pale ale with a twist. We’d probably rather drink Ghost Ship but perhaps, as with Elvis Juice, we just need to get to know it a little better.

Theakston Pink Grapefruit Ale
SOURCE: Theakston website.

And, finally, the one that really surprised us: the latest Wetherspoon’s ale festival includes a pink grapefruit ale from, of all breweries, Theakston. It is perhaps the most exciting Theakston beer we’ve ever had, a classic northern pale-n-hoppy whose tropical fruitiness is like the bold lining on a classically tailored jacket, glimpsed in passing rather than right upfront. But, after the fact, we discovered something funny: unless we’re missing a detail in the small print, despite the word grapefruit in the name and pictures of them on the pumpclip, this effect is achieved entirely with… hops. A relatively new, obscure variety called Sussex, according to the Theakston website.

Does all this take us nearer to Craftmaggedon, when the last of the cask Best Bitters shall be cast into the pit and we will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored? Or is just another variable for brewers to play with? It’s the latter, obviously. The beers above stand out in the context of Wetherspoon pubs or supermarket shelves but still represent only the very tiniest proportion of products on the market.