Beer history pubs real ale

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 (c) by gravity…

He mentions that (c) 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 replies on “Questions & Answers: Why No Hand-pulls on the Continent?”

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.


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.

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

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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