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’?