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Beer history pubs

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.