Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?

How come the cask hand-pump system didn’t develop in mainland Europe? Or am I missing something?’ Jordan (@timelytipple), Berlin

Instinc­tive­ly, we thought, yes, Jordan’s right – you don’t go into a bar or the local equiv­a­lent of a pub in France, Bel­gium, Ger­many or points east and see some­one pulling on a han­dle to draw beer from a cask into the glass. In Cologne and Düs­sel­dorf you might see a cask on a counter with a trick­le-tap on its side, or a grand and gleam­ing keg font, but not this:

Gaskell and Chambers beer engine.
SOURCE: Adver­tise­ment in the Licensed Vict­uallers’ Year­book, 1937.

But then we paused – was this always the case or are we, and Jor­dan, mak­ing the mis­take of assum­ing that how it is now is how it’s always been?

Com­menters on Twit­ter chipped in pret­ty prompt­ly. ‘Brus­sels est­a­minets had loads of hand­pumps’, said Joe Stange for starters, point­ing us, via an online auc­tion site, to this pic­ture:

A man works handpumps in a Belgian estaminet.
Het Spin­nekop­ke, Brus­sels, 1954. SOURCE: Brux­elles Anec­do­tique.

And when we emailed beer his­to­ri­an Ron Pat­tin­son to pick his brains he said: ‘Mün­ster Alt was often served through them in the 19th cen­tu­ry. I’ve come across odd exam­ples in Bel­gium, too.’

At the same time, on the flip­side, we know they weren’t a uni­ver­sal fea­ture of British pubs either. Invent­ed in the 1790s and, accord­ing to Brandwood/Davison/Slaughter in Licensed to Sell (2011), by ‘the 1920s… a reg­u­lar fea­ture of both the gin shop and the pub­lic house’, there were nonethe­less pubs that con­tin­ued to serve beer direct from casks mount­ed on or near the bar, or where the pub­li­can would scur­ry down to the cel­lar with a jug. Then, in the 20th Cen­tu­ry, new­er and more con­ve­nient meth­ods joined the mix, as set out by Fran­cis Yorke in his 1949 book The Plan­ning and Equip­ment of Pub­lic Hous­es:

[Beer] drawn from the wood’ is best, but this method is imprac­ti­ca­ble for the entire sup­ply in hous­es of more than mod­est size… Gen­er­al­ly there are three alter­na­tives meth­ods of deliv­er­ing beer to the bar from out­side, (a) by the beer pump, (b) by pres­sure, and © by grav­i­ty…

He men­tions that © is ‘almost uni­ver­sal­ly employed in Scot­land’. And as late as the 1960s it was almost the mark of a prop­er old-fash­ioned pub that the beer was ‘served straight from the wood’. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly lit­er­al­ly from wood but straight from the cask via a tap, in the ser­vice area, as at Becky’s Dive Bar, arguably the first beer geek hang­out, which looked like this:

Becky's Dive Bar, photographed by Grant W. Corby (we'd still like to get in touch with him) and supplied by Eric Schwartz (pictured right).
Becky’s Dive Bar, pho­tographed by Grant W. Cor­by (we’d still like to get in touch with him) and sup­plied by Eric Schwartz (pic­tured right).

By the 1970s, with kegged lager and bit­ter on the ascent, hand-pumps were being ripped out of even quite tra­di­tion­al pubs. Gaskell & Cham­bers, who made the major­i­ty of hand-pumps for the UK mar­ket, reck­oned they were pro­duc­ing only four han­dles a week at the all-time low-point in the ear­ly 1970s. They real­ly very near­ly died out alto­geth­er. This was one of the major chal­lenges for the nascent Cam­paign for Real Ale who had to restore the entire infra­struc­ture nec­es­sary to serve cask ale in many parts of the coun­try, quite apart from whip­ping up enthu­si­asm among brew­ers and drinkers.

So, to sum­marise: there cer­tain­ly was cask-and-hand-pull on the Con­ti­nent; and it wasn’t any­thing like uni­ver­sal in Britain, but it is prob­a­bly fair to say that it was more gen­er­al­ly pop­u­lar by a long way in Eng­land than it was on the Con­ti­nent.

Our gut instinct was that this was down to the way the Eng­lish pub devel­oped, with a flood of new build­ings in the mid-19th Cen­tu­ry when beer engines were the height of beer dis­pense tech­nol­o­gy. Many were big­ger build­ings with big­ger cel­lars fur­ther removed from the ser­vice counter. We also won­dered whether England’s aver­sion to wait­er ser­vice made a dif­fer­ence, requir­ing as it does a mem­ber of staff to attend to each cus­tomer one at a time rather than, as in mod­ern day Cologne, fetch­ing 20 drinks from a no-non­sense cen­tral ser­vice point and dis­trib­ut­ing them through­out the pub on their rounds.

Ron Pat­tin­son again:

I think it’s more com­pli­cat­ed than your the­o­ry… I think the real expla­na­tion is that the move away from grav­i­ty dis­pense was much ear­li­er in Britain. When it hap­pened, top pres­sure wasn’t an option. But by the late 19th cen­tu­ry, when Con­ti­nen­tal brew­eries were mod­ernising, there were more pos­si­bil­i­ties.

So, here’s a ten­ta­tive con­clu­sion: the appar­ent ubiq­ui­ty of hand-pumps in the UK, and their rel­a­tive scarci­ty on the Con­ti­nent, is actu­al­ly a recent devel­op­ment – a prod­uct of the 1970s real ale revival, part of the stig­ma­ti­sa­tion of keg, and a delib­er­ate hark­ing back to a sup­pos­ed­ly idyl­lic time before World War II. If CAMRA hadn’t exist­ed, Eng­lish bar coun­ters would prob­a­bly look today much like those in Brus­sels or Berlin.

We say ‘ten­ta­tive’ because this real­ly feels like a five year research project, and because we’re hop­ing Cunningham’s Law might kick in: if you know bet­ter (note: know, not reck­on…) then let us have both bar­rels in the com­ments below, or via an email if you’d pre­fer.

Update 31/10/2016: We also asked pub his­to­ri­an Geoff Brand­wood, author of the splen­did Britain’s Real Her­itage Pubs, for his views and he echoed Ed’s obser­va­tion in the com­ments below:

It’s always intrigued me. It seems to have to do with the fact that Britain nev­er went for the C19 lager rev­o­lu­tion (the intro­duc­tion of lager as a pre­mi­um prod­uct from the 1880s was a damp squib). We stayed ‘tra­di­tion­al’. I’ve heard it said that British breweries/pub own­ers weren’t keen on the extra invest­ment (cool­ing) that lager required. Are Con­ti­nen­tal taste buds dif­fer­ent from ours?

10 thoughts on “Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?”

  1. Don’t for­get that, in the ear­ly 70s, much (if not most) of the real ale in Eng­land and Wales was served by elec­tric pumps of var­i­ous designs, not by hand­pumps. I’d bet it was most by vol­ume if not by num­ber of pubs.

    It is only dur­ing the CAMRA era that the hand­pump has come to be adopt­ed as a sym­bol of real ale.

  2. Awe­some! And thanks for tak­ing the time to look into it!

    Real­ly, then, this is look­ing at the evo­lu­tion of brew­ing tech­nol­o­gy and indus­try, where you could make com­par­isons between the UK and the Con­ti­nent. It would also be inter­est­ing to see who import­ed the hand­pump into Europe, or who went around sell­ing them to bars.

    Feels like we’ve opened up a can of worms here, with the amount of research and avenues to explore ^^”

    Im just glad the folks at CAMRA put up the fight to save hand­pumps. Regard­less if theyre obso­lete tech­no­log­i­cal­ly, it adds so much to pub and cul­ture.

  3. I can only speak to Lon­don and then the NE in the ear­ly ‘70s: what very lit­tle real ale there was was on hand pump & grav­i­ty at Nellie’s in Bev­er­ley. Invari­ably in S&N hous­es on Tyne­side bright beer was on elec­tric pump. Oth­er­wise it was exten­sive­ly keg in both the NE and cen­tral Lon­don.

  4. Lager being at a low­er tem­per­a­ture will have more CO2 dis­solved in it, so may well have enough to emp­ty the bar­rel when you put it on the bar with­out hav­ing to let air in and pump it out. Any­way, that’s my guess!

  5. Nice work for a day’s pon­der­ing on it.

    My view: the hand­pump was (is) British kit, like the red phone box, or Web­ley revolver, or … Its use was there­fore local unless (often) a license arrange­ment occurred which result­ed in sales to inter­est­ed for­eign­ers (e.g. Max­im gun). But you always have a bor­der influ­ence, hence some use in Bel­gium, North­ern France, Dublin in the mid-1900s (a spe­cial case as Ire­land was British, orig­i­nal­ly). Benelux always had too a con­cur­rent inter­est in British beers.

    Today it’s dif­fer­ent when trends can catch on more quick­ly around the world.


  6. The 3 Foun­tains pub in Beersel served lam­bic from a hand pump when we vis­it­ed 5 years ago so I wouldn’t assume too much.

    1. I under­stood that the 3 Foun­tains in Beersel is named after it’s three hand pumps that are still on the counter/bar.

  7. I was in a few old­er look­ing bars in Ontario a cou­ple of years ago which had cask on hand­pump dis­pense, so did the tech­nol­o­gy make into the rest of the empire to any extent (OK I’m main­ly think­ing Can/Aus/NZ here)?

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