Beer history

GALLERY: Manet Paints Beer

Artist Édouard Manet (1832-1883), a pioneer of impressionism, liked to paint Parisian street scenes, bars and cafés, and had a particular knack for capturing the look of light glinting from a cool glass of golden beer.

The frequency with which he depicted women drinking beer — positively chugging it — is also striking.

The gallery begins with a painting much over-used in books and articles about beer but which we couldn’t ignore. We’ve also pulled out a couple of interesting details for closer attention.

We referred to these pictures a lot while working on Gambrinus Waltz — it might have been the wrong city, but lager came to London via Paris, and the atmosphere of London’s lager beer saloons was similarly racy.

All of these images were taken from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

6 replies on “GALLERY: Manet Paints Beer”

Excellent reproductions of some famous paintings. I doubt the pale beers were lager, since in this period, blonde lager was unusual except possibly if PIlsner Urquell was being imitated, but I’d think it more likely the light-coloured beer was pale ale. First, because Bass was still popular, as shown by Manet’s best-known painting (introduced to the modern beer world by Michael Jackson in 1977 in his The World Guide To Beer).

Second, in Basset’s 1870 book on various alcohols, the beer chapter states that French brewing had by this time become subject to foreign influence. He states to understand what is brewed in Paris, one need only refer to his discussions on Belgian, German and other brewing to understand what was brewed. In the German section for Bavaria, de describes only brown beers (ordinary, stick (lager properly called), salvator and other bock). He never mentions pale German lager even in discussing other regional German types although for one city, Mersebourg, he says they use a mixture of pale malt and coloured malt to make a brown beer. I’d think therefore in the photos, the dark brown beer before the drinker in able smock is an imitation of Munich dark beer, and the various lighter beers are all ales.

Pilsner hit Paris in around 1868, not long after Vienna beer (1866-7) so, by 1878, we’d be surprised if it wasn’t fairly common, especially in fashionable cafes. (SOURCE — p298.)

But who knows — Manet (the inconsiderate bastard) doesn’t seem to have included notes on beer styles with his paintings…

The light beer could well have been Urquell then, not an imitation (I’d guess) but the original. The colour seems to have attracted Manet’s attention as he refers to it repeatedly. In fact, perhaps pale ale was more typically light amber or orangey, so your source may pin all this down. Very interesting and indeed the colour is is very similar to Urquell today.


Just a quick correction because when I read what Basset (1870) wrote about beer in Paris, he describes “white beer” (biere blanche), which I disregarded initially because I assumed it was a wheat-based style and also he wrote that its sales were not significant in the Paris region. However, when I read it again, he says it is made with pale malt and a lot of “starch syrup”, an adjunct that is used today and thus it probably tasted like an American adjunct lager. He said this class of beer often wasn’t good because the brewers added “aromatics” to hide the starch syrup taste. I doubt this beer was served in Manet’s bars where the people appear to be mostly prosperous bourgeois. Those places probably didn’t serve a cheap adjunct beer (which showed on the bar Bass and Champagne…). Since Paris brewers made “biere brune” as their main style according to this writer, I think B&B are on or close to the mark in suggesting the light-coloured (but not “white”) beer in the paintings may well have been imported Urquell.


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