Q&A: Electric Beer Pumps

We like it when people ask us questions. Yesterday, we got this one from Simon Briercliffe:

These days, hand-pulls are the standard symbol of Proper Real Aleness, but in the 1970s measured electric dispense (push the button once for a half, twice for a full pint) were common enough, especially in the north, to warrant a diagram and description in multiple editions of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, first published in paperback form in 1974. The main image above is from the 1976 edition and is accompanied by text saying: “Taps operated by little levers or push-buttons can, however, work either by electricity or CO2 pressure and the only way to tell the difference is to pay your money and taste the stuff in your glass.”

Working back through a selection of how-to-run-a-pub guides in our library we dug up this reference from James H. Coombs’s 1965 book Bar Service: “For some time beer meters have been installed throughout the country and their operation takes all the guesswork out of drawing beer.” (We filleted that book in two posts here and here.) That helps narrow the search but left us mildly dissatisfied — surely there must be some more concrete dates we can pin down?

Well, here’s the lower boundary: it would seem that in 1948 when J.W. Scott delivered his paper ‘From Cask to Consumer’ (PDF) to a meeting of the London section of the Institute of Brewing, reliable beer dispense meters were not widely available on the UK market. He had designed his own which, while intended to deliver half a pint at a time, was not precise:

Mr H.G. SPILLANE asked whether it was possible for the author’s dispense to be regulated to serve half-pints of mixed beers… Mr SCOTT replied…. [that the] machine he had described did not give a definite measure, thought it was attempted to approach it closely; he could then give a head, or could fill the glass right to the top by means of the topping-up or agitating device. It was almost impossible to design a machine to give a precise measure because of the varying condition in the beer, which covered a fairly wide range when a vent peg was used.

Scanning more closely between those dates we find an article in the December 1955 edition of trade magazine A Monthly Bulletin on short measures:

From time to time various methods of serving draught beer [cask ale] without overspill have been propounded. One was the adoption of a dispenser which would measure out exactly ten ounces in oversized glasses. Such a device would have to be easy to clean, quick to operate, simple to use and maintain. So far as is known, no machine has yet been invented that could be used with beer engines or in drawing beer from the wood. It is possible to adjust a beer engine to deliver an exact half-pint with one even and continuous pull. That is, in favourable conditions; in practice, to use a beer engine as a measuring device would depend too much on the care and skill of the operator.

There are tantalising mentions throughout the 1950s, locked behind paywalls and copyright barriers, of Mills Electric Beer Engines. If anyone can tell us more about that, from sources un-Google-able, we’d be grateful. Here’s a (fairly useless) morsel we did find in a 1957 edition of the Morecambe Guardian from 1957, via the British Newspaper Archive:

Mills Electric Beer Engine advertisement.

It’s not clear from that whether the Mills device was merely an electric pump, not necessarily metered, or something more sophisticated.

One other important date would seem to be 1963 when a new Weights and Measures Act came into force. Before this, as we understand it, short or long measures of alcoholic drinks weren’t actually illegal, merely frowned upon. Suddenly, publicans were obliged to provide exactly a half pint or full pint or risk prosecution. Speaking in the House of Commons in July 1966 the Minister for the Board of Trade, George Darling MP, described a proposed amendment to the Act to allow for the use of meters (our emphasis):

What the Order does is to recognise approved new appliances for measuring beer and cider in public houses and bars of hotels which have come into use generally since the Act was passed…. Hon. Members who take a modest glass of beer or cider occasionally will have seen these new devices in operation. They usually have the appearance of a glass or transparent plastic cylinder which, when a tap is turned or a lever pulled, fills up with beer or cider to a mark on the cylinder and then empties that amount into a glass or mug.

At the other end of the timeline, digging around highlighted what might be another important moment: Gaskell & Chambers, manufacturers of beer engines since the 19th century and the dominant name in beer dispense equipment, announced plans to market their new beer metering system in the company statement for 1966-67, published in May 1967. Here’s some blurb from an accompanying advertorial published in the Birmingham Daily Post on 4 May 1967:

Changes in the physical handling of beer at the point of sale have been helped along by Gaskell & Chambers…. The old manual beer engine which has for so long typified the English hostelry is slowly yielding ground to neatly styled dispense taps in decorative housings, and to beer meters.

So the guess in Simon’s original Tweet doesn’t look far off the mark: 1963-1967 is when metered dispense really took off.

8 thoughts on “Q&A: Electric Beer Pumps”

  1. I remember two types of electric metered dispense pumps; the standard ones, as pictured – these I first came into contact with in the Midlands in the mid 80s. Wolverhampton and Dudley were big proponents of them and made a point of the fact that you always got a full pint in an oversized glass. Bass Mitchells and Butler used electic pumps extensively, too; Draught Bass in Brum was almost always served from an electric pump with a mini brewery mirror front. I’ve no idea if these were metered or not. The infamous Brew XI and rather good Mild were generally served from electric pumps which were almost identical to the keg ones; it did actually have “Cask Conditioned” or “Brewery Conditioned” in small writing, though.
    The more interesting type of meterd pump was the diaphragm pump, where you could see each half pint being drawn into the pump, then pushed out into your glass by a moving diaphragm. Used by several brewers, but Greenall Whitley were perhaps the main one I remember. These didn’t look anything like keg dispense, so were a lot more welcome.

    I wonder when electric pumps stopped being widely used? I would guess somewher around 1990?

      1. Haven’t done any drinking in Scotland apart from Edinburgh for some years, but I don’t recall all that many even when I did. Not even that many tall founts outside the most traditional Edinburgh boozers. But then I can imagine them all over Fife. 😉

    1. I worked for a time in a pub in Lancaster which used diaphragm pumps. It wasn’t a case of the pump measuring the beer and then pushing it out. What happened was that the incoming half pint pushed the diaphragm across the pump (a ball-shape within a plastic cube – there were also cylindrical versions) and it was this which pushed the previously measured half pint into the waiting glass. So there was always a half waiting to be poured, and the space behind the diaphragm was filled by the next half on its way from the cellar.

      1. Nice description. I remember the cylindrical ones – printed with a diagonal striped pattern as I remember – from my early years drinking in Manchester, i.e. the mid-80s; Hyde’s pubs, I’d have said.

  2. I clearly remember my old man’s pub had “Mills Spheromatic” electric dispensers, from about 1968/9 until maybe mid 80’s.

    The cask beer was connected to a free standing electric beer engine in the cellar. To dispense a half pint you moved the small handle in a vertical plane from left to right (and then back again for the next one). This (presumably through pressure, there was no electrical connection) caused the beer engine to operate and force the beer into the bar top dispenser. Basically there was a clear plastic cube on the bar top which had a hollow, spherical shaped inner chamber. A rubber diaphragm moved across from one side to the other as the beer in the sphere, which was obviously a half pint measure, was dispensed through a sparkler. As one side of the diaphragm dispensed into the glass the other filled again with beer and when it was full the beer engine stopped (like I say, I’m certain it was pressure activated). The little electric motors made quite a loud racing, whining noise and when several were operating together it was quite noisy. The type we had could power two OTB dispensers from one electric engine.

    One of the downsides was once they started pumping there was no stopping. If you had the sparkler too tight then you got a very tight dispense and it was hard to rectify mid dispense without lowering the glass from the pump end and making a real taws of it. Of course the glasses were over sized as it was important to get a head on the beer and not to spill.

    The pub was a Bass Charington (Stones) pub and from memory the beers pulled were Stones Best Bitter, Brew X and ELB.

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