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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 September 2017: Pils, Pepys, Pricing

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the last week, from Belgian Pils to China Ale.

Last week we mentioned in passing the launch of Drinkers’ Voice and expressed our instinctive doubts about the whole business. Now the Pub Curmudgeon has attempted to make the case in a passionate post on his blog:

Drinkers’ Voice as a matter of policy does not accept any industry funding, to ensure both the reality and the perception of independence. It speaks for the consumers of alcoholic drinks, not the producers. What it does have is a certain amount of involvement from CAMRA, which has led some to conclude that it is effectively a CAMRA front organisation… In recent years, there have been several motions passed at CAMRA AGMs urging the organisation to take a stronger line against the anti-drink lobby. However, CAMRA by definition does not represent all drinkers, and can all too easily be accused of glossing over the negative effects of alcohol in seeking to promote beer and pubs. There also remains a somewhat delusional tendency within its ranks who believe that the type of drinking that CAMRA supports can in some way be presented as less harmful. So the decision was taken that the objective could be better achieving by helping with the creation of an independent campaigning body.

We’ll keep pondering this and perhaps put our heads above the battlements with an actual blog post on the subject. Or (checks comments from last time we got involved in this kind of debate) maybe not.


Inside Brasseries Atlas.

For his website Brussels Beer City Eoghan Walsh has written about an abandoned brewery in the Belgian capital which reflects the changes and challenges of the past century:

As breweries shut down or moved their production outside of Brussels from the 1960s on, most of their buildings were torn down to make room for an expanding Brussels. The few that survived this destruction were converted into art galleries, performance spaces, or hotels… These are the neighbourhoods – in Anderlecht and Molenbeek – that comprised “le petit Manchester belge”. Keep going past streets with names like Birmingham, Liverpool, Industry. Past the faded signs on crumbling brick buildings advertising “Ford” and “Coke”. Past the old Moulart maltings complex that has been renovated as an interactive centre and a business incubator. And there, just along from the wrought iron rail bridge, is the art deco brewing tower of Grandes Brasseries Atlas.

The post is accompanied by lots of lovely photographs just one of which is reproduced above.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 September 2017: Pils, Pepys, Pricing”

Exhibit 1: Winemaker magazine, December 1971

Amateur Winemaker, December 1971 -- bright orange cover design.

All of the memorialising last week on the tenth anniversary of the death of Michael ‘the Beer Hunter’ Jackson gave Alan McLeod an opportunity to revisit one of his favourite challenges to the consensus: was Jackson really more influential than, say, Dave Line?

We heard Alan when he made this point a few years ago which is partly why we spent time tracking down Mr Line’s widow, Sheila, and interviewing her for Brew Britannia, where we devoted several pages to profiling him. In a later article for CAMRA’s BEER magazine we reflected in more detail on his influence:

While Dave Line was making a name for himself as arguably the world’s foremost home brewing writer, elsewhere, what we now know as micro-breweries were popping up all across Britain. Most were founded by professionals who had previously worked for large companies such as Watney’s or Courage but a handful came from a home-brewing background and it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have had what were then the definitive texts, Dave’s two books, at hand. Certainly Brendan Dobbin, who started home brewing as a student in Belfast in the late 1970s, began his career by working through the recipes in The Big Book of Brewing.

In America, where the ‘craft beer revolution’ was very much more driven by home brewers, Dave’s books were even more important. Jack McAuliffe, who founded New Albion Brewing in California in 1976, learned to brew from kits purchased at Boots in Glasgow while on naval service and has frequently cited Dave’s Big Book of Brewing as a key text. Other famous names from the first wave of American craft beer such as Greg Noonan, Dave Miller and Ken Grossman, the founder of Sierra Nevada, also mention The Big Book as a key text in their early development – worth remembering next time you hear an overly-simplified account of the influence of modern US brewing on the British scene.

One concrete example of Dave Line’s influence can be found in Scottish brewery Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, a ‘black ale’ at 4.5% ABV in cask. The brewery’s founder, Ken Brooker, conceived the beer using a Dave Line recipe as his starting point, as he told Michael Jackson in 2000.

So we certainly acknowledge Dave Line’s impact on a generation of home-brewers and, by extension, microbrewers, but maintain that Michael Jackson was (a) a better writer (a matter of opinion, of course) and (b) more influential in the broad sense in that he inspired brewers to look beyond basic domestic styles and to explore ‘world beer’. He also (c) basically invented the pattern for modern beer writing.

Last week, though, Alan clarified his argument helpfully:

No. As I said above, my question is the influence of AW group on early micro brewers, not about ‘modern beer writing style’

For some time he has been urging someone, anyone, to dig up the archives of Amateur Winemaker magazine (for which Line and other early home-brewing gurus wrote) and renewed his call. We asked (not snarkily, only to clarify the mission) what he expected or hoped to be found there:

Subscribers lists? Reading the columns to see what was discussed in the ecosystem before key dates? Who wrote letters to the editor?

All of this (as Alan’s hectoring often does) got us thinking — perhaps, even acknowledging Dave Line as we did, we’d still not given him and his colleagues their due. We tested the water by emailing another pioneering UK brewer, Sean Franklin. When we spoke to him back in 2013 he talked glowingly of Michael Jackson, at length, but didn’t mention Dave Line at all. But perhaps (as Alan suggested in another Tweet) that’s because we failed to prompt him. So we prompted him. He replied (this lightly edited):

Like all home-brewers, I looked at those books but for the main part my days at Bordeaux University put me further ahead. It was mostly malt extract in those days. I did a recipe from Dave Line’s book as one of my first beers – the first one was horrible (my fault for using an old can of extract) but the second was much better. Fuller’s ESB, as I remember. I’d worked in London so I knew what that tasted like. After that I switched to full mash.

We can’t make it to the British Library just now but we were prompted to order a couple of copies of Amateur Winemaker from the 1970s by way of test-drilling. One order fell through but the other worked out and a copy of Winemaker (the magazine’s actual title, it turns out) came through the door yesterday.

Ted Wade.

Here’s what it contains that strikes us as being of relevance to Alan’s argument:

  1. Some surprisingly sophisticated brewing kit advertisements listing specific varieties of hops, various types of malt and even odd additives such as licquorice sticks for livening up stout.
  2. Some debate over a then topical news story about a Glasgow home-brewer who may or may not have contracted ‘erosive gastritis’ from contaminated beer.
  3. A feature article by Ted Wade called ‘Designing a Beer’. This is a fairly sophisticated piece suggesting that, by 1971, home-brewers had already moved beyond plastic dustbins and gravy browning. Having said that, hops (he says) should smell hoppy, and that’s it. The accompanying recipe is for a Newcastle Brown Ale clone.
  4. A recipe for Wassail Bowl that includes three pints of brown ale.
  5. An article with another recipe for Wassail Bowl and several other seasonal beer punches.
  6. An article about the various risks of home beer- and wine-making (fines, children drinking your stash, etc.).
  7. A photograph of D. Haynes receiving a trophy for best bitter (light or dark) from the Romsey Winemakers Circle.
  8. Branch reports: mostly wine but a couple of mentions of beer, and of a trip to the Belgian beer festival at Wieze from the Basingstoke crew.
  9. An Index for 1971, reproduced in part below.
  10. An advert for Northern Brewer hops from ‘Wine and the People’, a firm based in Oakland, California.

The rest of the magazine (about 60 out of 84 pages) are about wine, as are all the readers letters.

Index for December 1971, beer section.

You’ll see from the index above that there’s not much that seems to herald the coming of the age of craft beer, but of course it’s hard to tell from only two or three words per article.

But 1971 is still early and there’s enough here to make us think it might at least be worth looking at issues from, say, 1974 (when CAMRA was making serious waves) and 1976 when Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer was still a work in progress.

It goes without saying that if you or any elderly relatives have copies of this magazine knocking around in the attic, we’d love to see scans or photos — do get in touch.

PS. The magazine also contains a letter from someone apologising for an anti-Semitic joke in a previous issue, but pointing out that he has many Jewish friends, and, anyway, as a Scot he has to put up with worse. Yikes!

Bristol Lambic?

Beer maturing in vats.
George’s vats as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1909.

Here’s a new question for us to chew on: was the ‘Old Beer’ for which George’s Bristol Brewery was famous up until World War II an early example of a wilfully sour British beer?

We’ve been reading bits and pieces about George’s here and there for the last few months, fascinated by the long-gone local giant which built so many of the most interesting pubs in Bristol. It was founded in around 1730, and acquired by Courage in 1961 after which, to all intents and purposes, the brand ceased to exist. For a large chunk of its existence, though, its flagship product was a notable vatted ale:

Georges’ Old Beer, famous throughout the West, is matured in huge vats, some of the largest in the Kingdom, with a total capacity of one million gallons. The beer remains in the vats for at least 12 months before it is allowed to go to the consumer. (One Hundred and Fifty Years of Brewing, 1938)

Other Bristol breweries, notably Rogers’ of Jacob Street, also produced vatted Bristol Old Beer. Martyn Cornell has written about West Country vatted ales on his blog and in his essential 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black (disclosure: he sent us a freebie PDF at the time) and gives a useful summary of the tech spec:

Brewing of these West Country vatted ales always began in the autumn, using a mixture of old and new malts, often a ‘high-dried’ English malt with plenty of colour mixed with a mild ale malt. The Brewers’ Journal in 1936 was advising that such strong stock ales ‘of 30lb gravity and upwards’ (that is, OGs of around 1085 or more) should go through two or three secondary fermentations in cask before being bottled after nine or twelve months not fully worked out, but still ‘in slight “creamy” condition’.

What really grabbed our attention, though, was a description of George’s Old Beer in a 1943 article about the brewery in a technical journal (PDF):

The brewery was famed in early days for Porter, hence its early title ‘The Bristol Porter Brewery’. Afterwards ‘Old beer’ became one of the main products, and many vats of considerably over 1,600 barrels’ capacity were in use for storing the heavy beer for at least 18 months, the competition with cider no doubt influenced the character of this old beer.

This blew our minds a little.

We’ve long been fascinated by the similarity between the wilder Somerset ciders and Belgian lambic beers but this is the first time we’ve seen it suggested that the cider-friendly West Country palate might have influence how the local beer tasted. It’s certainly plausible, though, that drinkers used to the intensity of scrumpy might find fresh, bright, clean-tasting ales just a bit bland.

Now, at this stage, of course we still have a lot of questions to answer:

  1. Did cider in 1943 taste like cider does now? (We can’t see that it tasted less sour or funky.)
  2. When this writer implies Old Beer was equivalent to cider, does he mean that it tasted like cider (actually acidic and wild) or only that it was similar in some other way? E.g. relatively strong, or differently complex as a result of Brettanomyces, or merely very dry. A 1909 article in the London Illustrated News describes it as having ‘depth and mellowness’ which doesn’t sound much like cider.
  3. What happened to the vats; when did Old Beer go out of production; and did drinkers in Bristol suddenly acquire the taste for ‘normal’ beer? (Guess: the Blitz; the war; no. But we’ll see.)

In the meantime, there’s an idea for some more sacrilegious beer mixing here: three parts old ale, one part scrumpy anyone?

Psst! Don’t forget to enter our competition if you want to win copies of 20th Century Pub and Brew Britannia.

Bits We Underlined In Whitbread Way No. 13, 1979

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Whitbread Way was a magazine published by the mega-brewery for the education of its licensees. This issue from the summer of 1979 is all about lager and pub grub.

Actually, we had to work out the date from various clues — for some reason, it isn’t given anywhere in the publication — so don’t quote us on it. The magazine is glossy and professional looking, in that boring trade-mag way.

It starts with a news round-up by Graham Kemp which betrays some political bias in the wake of the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister:

There is undoubtedly a groundswell of opinion towards a more pragmatic, commercial approach to life in Britain… The mood of the country over the past decade has been to go for the highest possibly incomes without considering where the money is to come from or what we have to earn nationally to sustain our present standard of living.

What goes around comes around and all that. This statement comes in the context of pressure from the Price Commission which wanted to keep beer prices down to avoid consumer discontent. ‘Prices ought to go down even costs go up’, says Mr Kemp sarcastically, oddly presaging last week’s Cloudwater blog post. What goes around… Oh, we’ve done that one.

Three men raising pints over a video recorder.
Licensee William Garside of the Dog & Partridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, is presented with the Phillips N1700 video recorder he won in a magazine competition.

The first substantial feature, by John Firman, is fascinating and if we’d got round to reading this earlier might have informed our big piece on lager louts. It is entitled ‘Violence — is it necessary?’ and concerns the stalling of what they refer to as the Ban the Thug Bill. It was proposed by Conservative MP Anthony Grant and was intended to ban convicted ‘hooligans’ from entering pubs for up to two years at a time. Violence in pubs was felt to be on the rise and damaging the trade, as supported by quotes from interviews with licensees. Again, the article is openly political: the last government, Firman asserts, didn’t like to do anything and so blocked Grant’s bill, but he expresses a hope that the new Conservative government might be more open to the idea. (They were; the bill passed in 1980.) It’s interesting with hindsight that nowhere in this discussion was lager mentioned, but then…

Continue reading “Bits We Underlined In Whitbread Way No. 13, 1979”