Category Archives: pubs

Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

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’?

Ask for it By Name!

These days, it would seem odd to go into a pub and simply ask for ‘a pint of lager’ or a ‘half of bitter’ but that, we think, is a fairly recent development.

Fortunately, people have been observing, recording and advising on the etiquette of ordering beer in pubs for decades so we can trace the change fairly easily.

1938: Avoid Brand Names

Assuming that you intend to star on beer the safest drink for you to demand is ‘bitter’… Or you might try a Burton (alias ‘old’) if you have a taste for something a little less acrid… Having become proficient at ordering in its simpler forms, you may proceed to the more complicated mixtures… There is no necessity for any instruction to be given on the ordering of bottled beer… You have only to be careful in a tied house that you do not ask for the product of a rival brewery, and that error is easily avoided by ordering a light or dark ale without mentioning names.

T.E.B. Clarke, What’s Yours? — the student’s guide to Publand

1990: Brand Names for Bottles

There are five different kinds of draught beer: [Lager, Bitter, Mild , Guinness and Non-alcholic or low-alcohol beer]… Non-alcoholic beer is usually sold by name… Most pub beer is sold on draught. You can see the names of each one available on the pumps at the bar. You order them by the pint of half-pint… ‘A [pint/half-pint] of [bitter/lager/mild] please’. There are also many beers which are sold in bottles. You ask for them by name.

Jimmie Hill and Michael Lewis, Welcome to Britain: language and information for the foreign visitor

1996: Ordering by Brand is a Northern Irish Peculiarity

At a basic level, the bar staff just need to know whether you want bitter, lager or another sort of beer, and whether you want a pint, a half, or one of the wide variety of imported and domestic beers sold by the bottle… When ordering,  you just say ‘A half of lager, please’ or ‘A half of bitter, please’…  In Northern Ireland, pubgoers tend to order beer by brand name: they will say ‘A pint of Harp’, rather than ‘A pint of lager’ and ‘A pint of Smithwicks’ rather than ‘A pint of bitter’.

Kate Fox, Passport to the Pub: a guide to British pub etiquette

2001: ‘A Pint of Bitter’ No Longer Sufficient

It used to be fairly simple for the beer drinker: a pint of bitter… This was in the days when pubs were owned by breweries and a pint of bitter was the normal draught ale made by that particular brewery. Nowadays, there is likely to be a choice of bitters, but there are worse things than choice.

Nicholas Pashley, Notes on a Beermat: drinking and why it’s necessary

2009: Order by Brand to Pass for Native

The easiest way to sound native in a pub is to order your beer by the brand name, rather than using the generic terms ‘lager’, ‘bitter’ and so on. If you like trying new thing, you could ask for a pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’ or ‘Theakston’s Old Peculiar’, but don’t blame us if you don’t like them.

Gavin Dudeny and Nicky Hockly, Learning English as  Foreign Language for Dummies

* * *

Of course we’d like another 20 or 30 sources before we can be sure but, from that lot, we’d conclude that something happened in the 1990s that meant ordering just ‘a pint of bitter’ became passé. We reckon it was probably a combination of (a) the collapse of the brewery-tied-house pub model in the wake of the Beer Orders and (b) the sheer weight of brand-based advertising and designer culture. It might also be, however, that British consumers, after 20-odd-years of education from the Campaign for Real Ale and beer writers like Michael Jackson, had simply become more particular.

On a related note, what do you think you would get served if you went into your favourite pub and just asked for ‘A pint of bitter, please’? We put this question to someone behind the bar in a St Austell pub and they were stumped — ‘Tribute is our biggest seller, but it’s not exactly bitter, as such.’ (Although that was before the launch of Cornish Best.)

The Talbot Arms, Settle

As you’ll see from the gallery we posted earlier today there’s no shortage of pubs in the conjoined-twin-towns of Settle and Giggleswick but one was our clear favourite: the Talbot Arms.

Situated off the High Street, behind the market place and a few doors down from the 17th-century architectural oddity that is the Folly, the Talbot is visually striking: a wall of white with the pub’s name in huge black letters and an unusual sign of a white dog which looks both hip and yet also strangely medieval.

Inside is a single large room, rather bare, which somehow conveys that dining is an option without making it feel like an obligation. On our multiple visits we found locals chatting at the bar, in corners gossiping, or in muddy boots reading the Craven Herald with glasses of wine.

The ale list at the Talbot.

The cask ale offer struck us as interesting for various reasons. First, because we recognised few of the breweries; secondly, because there was a clear effort to cover a range of styles, from mild to pale’n’hoppy via old-fashioned bitter; and, finally, because the range seemed more resolutely small-and-local than some other pubs in the area.

Pump clip for Partners Cascade.

Not every beer we tried was top notch but none of them were downright bad, and all were in good nick. It was also here that we also found our beer of the week: Partners Brewing Cascade (4% ABV, £3 a pint). Somewhat neglected in favour of more fashionable hop varieties, Cascade is surely due a revival — citrus, yes, but with a distinctive fruits-of-the-forest character that lent this particular beer a ripe juiciness to balance a light body and flinty bitterness.

Perhaps those of you who know the northern scene better than us will let us know whether Partners is a generally well-regarded brewery — we suspect not, or we might have heard of them — but, regardless, this particular beer was one we stuck on for multiple pints, and for two days in a row at that.

The Talbot Arms also has a proper beer garden — that is, not a wasp-infested yard next to the bins with a pile of mouldering carpet, as is found in most English pubs, but something landscaped and leafy, with solid tables, and a mixture of sunshine and shade. It isn’t quite up to German standards, but it’s not far off.

Now, if you visit Settle, the Talbot might not be your favourite — perhaps we were lucky with the weather and the particular beers that were on offer — but you can certainly have some fun finding out over the course of a day or weekend.

GALLERY: Pubs of Settle & Giggleswick, N. Yorks

We’ve just spent a week in Giggleswick/Settle which, for its size, has plenty of decent pubs. Our favourite was the Talbot Arms, of which more later, but here’s a quick look at all the others.

The Golden Lion (far left) and Thirteen (right).
High Street, Settle, with the Golden Lion to the far left and Thirteen (with red CAMRA banner) to the right.
Doorway and signs at Thirteen.
Thirteen — almost a micropub, but not quite — advertises its offer. (Note: buy six pints, keep the receipts, and get a seventh free.)

Continue reading GALLERY: Pubs of Settle & Giggleswick, N. Yorks

Notable Pubs #2: The Crooked House, Himley, Staffs

The Crooked House in Himley, just over the Staffordshire border near Dudley, is one of the weirdest pubs in Britain.

Reportedly built as a farmhouse, most accounts of its history assert that it became a public house in the 19th century, and was at first known as The Siden House. Siden, in the local dialect, meant ‘lopsided’ and it is an accurate description as one side of the pub is several feet lower than the other.

The leaning, now stabilised, is supposed to be a result of subsidence caused by coal-mining and has left doors, windows and signs entirely skew-whiff so that the building appears to be frozen in mid-collapse

The interior is no less strange with walls leaning backwards, the bar looming forward, and floors appearing to slope. At the same time, glasses slide across seemingly level surfaces, and marbles roll upward along shelves. It is a disorienting environment to drink in and, as one newspaper report put it, ‘he who negotiates it lurches from side to side like a landsman on board a ship in a storm’ (Dundee Evening Post, 16/09/1904).

A 1906 newspaper illustration of the Crooked House.
A 1906 newspaper illustration of the Crooked House showing brick buttresses.

Another report in the Daily Express (15/09/1904), suggested that it had only became a tourist attraction at around the turn of the 20th century, ‘a favourite place for a drive on Sundays’. (Perhaps over-egging, the same report describes the pub as ‘A Rival to the Tower of Pisa’.)

Its formal name was until recently the Glynne Arms, after Sir Stephen Glynne, 8th Baronet (1807-1874); though the inn stands on land owned by the Early of Dudley, Glynne owned and worked property thereabouts — some reports say he was engaged in mining, others that he operated an ironworks.

Postcard of the Crooked House c.1900.
Early 20th century postcard from the authors’ own collection.

These days, however, the pubs is officially called The Crooked House, and serves beer from Banks’s.

Main image derived from ‘Crooked House’ by Peter Broster, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons licence. The Crooked House is a staple of ‘Inns of Old England’ books but we feel justified in writing about it because we’d never registered it until last year, and so we guess others won’t know about it either.