The Man Within Compass: mystery solved?

A couple of months ago someone tagged us into a Twitter query: what is the origin of the name of a pub called The Man Within Compass? After weeks of digging around, we think we’ve sussed it.

The Man Within Compass is a famous real ale pub in Whitwick, near Coalville, in Leicestershire, and has been in numerous editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide over the years.

Its name is apparently unique and certainly mysterious – none of the standard references seem to even offer a suggestion. There’s no joy to be had from local history websites, either.

So, we went through our usual research routines:

1. Search the exact phrase using quotes (“man within compass”) to see if it appears in old books, newspapers or the Bible. All the references we found were to the pub itself, or seemed unlikely to be connected, e.g. John Locke uses those words in that order but there’s no obvious link.

2. Search variations on the phrase: “manwithin compass” and “man withen compass” (between unorthodox spelling and dodgy OCR, this can sometimes turn up results); “manwidden compass” (pub names are often mangled versions of place or personal names); and “men within compass”.

3. Look for partial matches: “man within”, “within compass”, “man * compass”, and so on.

It was “within compass” that unlocked it, specifically leading us to the following mass-produced print from c.1820 at the British Museum website.

Continue reading “The Man Within Compass: mystery solved?”

Q&A: Harmonising European brewing methods, 1973

Newspaper headline from 1975Via Twitter, we’ve been asked to provide more information on plans by the European Common Market in 1973 to “harmonise European brewing methods”, as mentioned in Fintan O’Toole’s book  Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

Mr O’Toole quotes from a story in the Daily Mirror (25/06/1973) headlined EUROBEER MENACE:

A Common Market threat to British beer united labour and Tory MPs yesterday. The threat came in reports of a plan by Market authorities to ‘harmonise’ brewing methods in member countries.

Mr. William Wilson, teetotal Labour MP for South Coventry, and Tory Sir Gerald Nabarro both plan to raise the issue with Food Minister Joseph Godber “in the interests of the beer drinkers of Britain.”

Sir Gerald said: “This would be a disaster. Our beer is world famous for its strength, nutritional value and excellence.”

It’s not hard to work out what people thought harmonisation might mean: mild and bitter banned, German-style lager everywhere, by order of Brussels.

But there’s very little detail in the story and it reads like typical fuss-about-nothing tabloid reporting wilfully missing the point for the sake of causing outrage. (On the same page: NOW FRIED ONIONS ARE BANNED AT WIMBLEDON.)

Sure enough, it didn’t take much digging to find a report from the Economist from two days earlier (23/06/1973) announcing that these proposals had already been abandoned by the time the Mirror ran its piece.

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Beer geeks, however, were talking about at least one specific technical issue: in the discussion around harmonisation proposals, there was a suggestion that only female (seedless) hops ought to be used in brewing across Europe. In England, however, male hops were historically grown alongside female, and people had a vague sense that male hops… er… made our beer taste more virile? Or something.

Richard Boston wrote about this in his Guardian column for 29 September 1973:

You can imagine the consternation with which I received the ugly rumour that in order to conform with the practice of our Common Market partners the male hop was going to be routed out here too… I got straight on the blower to the Hops Marketing Board… and asked their spokesman if it was true… “Absolute balls,” he replied.

The Economist followed the Eurobeer story closely, reporting on its progress over the next few years, as in this particularly interesting piece from 2 November 1974:

Much nonsense is talked by European politicians about Brussels busybodies trying madly to standardise European food and drink. Britain’s Mr Harold Wilson is just about the worst offender. At long last it has provoked a European civil servant into putting the record straight. Anonymously, he is circulating a paper dissecting each complaint. Most are exposed as innacurate…

Plans for Eurobeer and Eurobread – now withdrawn for review – neither outlaw nor standardise national brews and loaves. The aim is rather to demolish protectionist barriers which impede the free sale of these products across national boundaries. Germany, for example, has strict rules which virtually mean that if a beer is not brewed in the German way it cannot be called beer. The Commission’s Eurobeer plan would make Germany open its market to imported beers, including British ales, which meet a common European standard.

In 1975, the UK Government held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community. The threat of Eurobeer came up repeatedly in referendum campaign materials such as this pamphlet from the Government itself. A Q&A with the Consumer Association in the Daily Mirror for 30 May 1975 answers our question head on:

Q: What does ‘harmonisation’ mean? Shall we be drinking Eurobeer?

A: Harmonisation means getting our standards in line with those of other countries to enable us to sell our products to them. There are two types in the Common Market:

TOTAL: When a Common Market law says that only products which comply with that law can be sold at all in the Common Market;

OPTIONAL: When individual countries can allow products which do not conform to the law to be sold in their own countries…

But if there is a regulation on beer or bread, this will almost certainly be optional.

Oddly enough, even though the EC/EU didn’t implement any such plan, by the late 1980s, lager was everywhere in England anyway, much of it brewed in the UK under the supervision of continental European brewers, and sold under continental European brand names. Market economics and consumer demand did what the EC didn’t.

Q&A: What’s the Story of Lanted Ale?

Froth blowing.

In a brief exchange with @HappyBeerTime and @bierocratie on Twitter last month we agreed to see what we could find out about the practice of ‘lanting’ ale — that is, adding urine to it.

It turns out this has been written about fairly frequently especially on ‘Wacky Word of the Day’ type blogs, probably at least in part because of the sheer glorious grottiness of the idea.

Here’s what Sally Magnusson has to say in her 2011 book The Life Pee: How Urine Got Everywhere:

The eponymous Tinker of Turvey claims in 1630 to have “drunke double-lanted ale, and single-lanted”. Thirty years later the anonymous Renaissance drama, The Marriage Broker, includes a lament that: “My hostess takings will be very small,/ Although her lanted ale be nere so strong.” John Wright’s burlesque Mock-Thyestes in 1674 has a character “dead drunk with double lanted ale” and by 1691 the practice is so common that it wins a place in John Ray’s North Country Words: “To leint ale: To put urine into it to make it strong.”

But not everyone approved. The brewers’ bible, The London and Country Brewer, complained in 1743 of the “nasty, horrid and detestable piece of cunning and knavery… of putting chamberly, or human urine, into their pale or amber twopenny malt drink.”

Another frequently quoted instance can be found in a 1639 comic play by Henry Glapthorne called Wit in a Constable:

I doe believe you sir, your face does tel me,
You’r one that feed on bacon and bagpudding,
Your nose by its complexion does betray
Your frequent drinking country Ale with lant in’t,
Have you no hobnayls in your boots, driven in
To save the precious leather from the stones
That pave the streets of London.

But is any of that convincing evidence for this actually happening in practice? The references are mostly in comedy and it strikes us that it’s probably a folk legend highlighting the backward habits of bumpkins, and/or the foul cunning of brewers and publicans. (See also: KFCs mutant chickens.)

And, as it happens, these historians on Reddit tend to agree with us.

Before we’d really be willing to believe that anyone was putting wee in beer we’d want to see something like a brewers’ manual advising on how to go about it, and perhaps explaining why on earth you would bother; or an official document recording instances of it occurring in the real world.

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.

Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“Any recommendations for stash beers?” — Rob G.

This question came up in the context of a Twitter discussion in which someone shared a photo of their collection of special beers inteded for ageing. It included Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Old Chimney’s Good King Henry, Courage Russian Imperial and Lees Harvest Ale, which is a pretty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not really into ageing beer ourselves, purely because we haven’t got the time, space or money to do it properly, but we’re certainly interested and so have had a go at answering this question. We suspect more useful advice will emerge in the commments.

First, some thoughts on general principles.

One reason for building a collection is to enable comparison over time, either by drinking the same beer at intervals and keeping notes, or by drinking multiple vintages of the same beer in a so-called ‘vertical tasting’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on better-established breweries that have been producing a big stout or barley wine for some years and look set to continue brewing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to collect a set worth playing with. There’s also a sort of insurance in buying from breweries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less likely to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jezza (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent article on Belgium obsessives in CAMRA’s BEER magazine he mentioned that when stocking his collection of aged and ageing beer he now buys “huge quantities at a time”. That’s because he frequently found himself wishing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of perfection after many years hidden in his cupboard. So we’d say that means looking for beers that aren’t prohibitively expensive and which you can conceive of buying by the case, perhaps with only a bit of wincing and digging around for coppers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that another way, this is one area where ‘boring’, easy-to-buy beers and breweries are probably a safer bet than obscurities.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Masters 1893 Double Stout got better over the course of a couple of years, and the bottle we found in a London pub that must have been three years old was astonishingly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an example of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Imperial Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a similar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will probably age in similar ways.

A beer Jezza mentioned as a particular focus of his ageing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when available, can be picked up in the UK for between £4-5 per 330ml bottle. (He has bottles going back to 1989.)

Belgian beers, tending to the strong and sweet, generally age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers probably won’t yield as much from ageing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kulminator.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d consider filling a cellar with, especially if you can pick it up in Belgium at Belgian prices — it’s getting prohibitively expensive in the UK.

Orval (not especially strong or sweet) is one famous example of a beer often drunk aged and which has the benefit of showing its development relatively quickly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30-40 a go, you’d be able to compare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own preferences. (It is also good for magically enhancing other beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a useful source of knowledge on what time does to specific beers. Of an 8-year-old Westmalle Dubbel, an easy to find, consistent and affordable beer, he says:

There’s sweet sherry in the flavour… which is possibly just oxidation at work, but it does transform the beer in a fun and pleasant way. It hasn’t become magically heavier than usual, but it has elements of the things you find in double-digit dark Belgian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the rounded estery greasiness, though not the heat. It still remains lightly textured and easy drinking… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your Westmalle Dubbel into something more complex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like something we’ll have to try. Do look at his other posts for more suggestions.

If you want to read something more substantial on this we recommend Patrick Dawson’s 2014 book Vintage Beer which contains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, general advice on which types of beer generally age well, as well as tips on which specific beers to buy.

Now, to those comments — tell us, what’s worked for you?

Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?

“Do you have any information on the history of brewery and distillery branded mirrors? No one I’ve spoken to seems to know exactly why or how they started, or why they dropped off.” — Nathan, via Twitter

It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment a trend began but we do know, first, that the popularity of glass as a building material and for decoration in particular increased after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the centrepiece of which, the Crystal Palace, used glass with great extravagance.

The Crystal Palace.
SOURCE: The British Library.

We also know that techniques for cutting designs into large sheets of glass took off at around the same time leading to early examples of brewery-branded glass panels and mirrors, with only relatively simple designs, in the 1850s and 60s. A technique known as ‘back-painting’ became popular in the 1870s and brought colour into play. (All of that according to Inside the Pub, McDunnet & Gorham, Architectural Press, 1950.) By the end of the 19th century a look and feel that had been the preserve of private homes and exclusive clubs was the preferred style for grander city pubs. But decorative glass  was still relatively expensive, which brings us to the kind of branded mirrors Nathan has in mind.

Continue reading “Q&A: What’s the Story of Branded Pub Mirrors?”

Q&A: What was ‘The World of Brewing’?

When Lou Tweeted the above at us back in August we added ‘World of Brewing’ to our list of things to keep an eye out for in the archives. This week, we found something.

It’s an advertisement from around the time of the museum’s launch in June 1980 and gives a pretty decent description of its purpose along with some good, solid facts.

Text of an old newspaper ad.It’s good to know exactly where it was, for one thing — at 226 Tower Bridge Road, right next to the river.

That very distinctive name, Tarant Hobbs, is also helpful. Following that trail we discover that (a) the museum ‘flourished briefly’ but had closed by December 1980; and (b) it was backed by Big Six brewery Courage, somewhat on the quiet:

The Cornell Column, June 1980.
Hertfordshire CAMRA newsletter, June 1980

The museum might have come back to life – it seems to be listed in this 1986 tourist guide to London – and there are hints, here and there, that Tarant Hobbs might still be around. If we can find a postal address we’ll send him one of our nice letters and see if we can get him to tell us a bit more.

In the meantime if you find this reviving any long-buried memories of visiting the exhibition, do drop us a line.

UPDATED 11.03.2019: Jake Gutteridge has been in touch to flag a website about the World of Brewing he put together with Tarant Hobbs, his grandfather.

Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“What’s the etiquette when you know more about beer than bar staff? They’re probably passionate about beer, about craft. Maybe they’re younger and hipper than you. Sometimes they think that because they behind a bar they’re experts on beer, but drop clangers like telling you that Ekuanot is a brand new experimental hop rather than a rename of Equinox. What do you do? How do you communicate that they’re wrong about something without being boorish?”

Brendan, Leeds

This is an interesting question, although more about etiquette and human interaction than something to which we can give a definitive answer. But we’ll try.

Short version: let it go.

On a couple of occasions we’ve found ourselves in pubs with a veteran beer writer and watched them come up against the kind of bar person who not only doesn’t know much about beer, but exhibits their ignorance with enormous arrogance.

How does the guru handle it? They say, ‘Oh, interesting — thanks’; they smile kindly; and they walk away.

Unless it will result in you losing out somehow (e.g. being overcharged, or ending up with a beer you won’t enjoy) what’s the point in starting this kind of argument? It can only be ego, surely.

Take the high road.

Let it go.

* * *

OK, short version over — now let’s dig into this a bit more.

The flipside of the situation Brendan describes is the difficulty for bar staff of dealing with experts, or at least people who think they’re experts. We asked on Twitter what people who’ve worked behind bars think of ‘know-all customers’ (leading language, but there you go) and here’s a selection of the comments we received:

“Personally I love when I get a customer that knows more than me. It rarely happens though, not to brag.”

“There is a contingent of generally male cask ale drinkers age 50+ who simply cannot accept that someone in their twenties can know more about beer than them. Despite the fact they know very little.”

“Spent years being ‘told’ how to pour Guinness. These days if they keep annoying me I may casually mention my [beer writing work]… They are there to have fun. It’s my job to help. If they are showing off and it’s jovial I’ll tease them about anything they get wrong.”

“Geeks who are just sharing their excitement – go for it, I like talking to guests like that. Know-it-all asses? Not so much.”

“All power to em, if it’s the one bright spot their otherwise moribund existence then let em have it. Hardly worth the grief getting wound up.”

“I liked people to tell me how they wanted things served, rather than those who expected me to know and complained after.”

“Obviously, I also have the disadvantage of being female, and below the age of 30, so I think I may have had a more concentrated experience…”

“I’ve experienced two kinds of ‘know-all’ customers. Some love beer and just want to talk about it and they’re obviously pleased when they find knowledgeable staff. They’re the awesome customers that you can wax lyrical about hops with and share favourite beer facts. But then there’s the ones that want to lecture you. Normally middle aged men who like proving they know everything about beer to anyone in ear shot.”

“I’ve been that person myself; desperate to get the approval of the bartender. As long as nobody is rude, no harm done.”

One of those comments came from Suzy (@lincolnpubgeek) and we asked her to elaborate — how should a customer in Brendan’s situation handle it?

When I was a fledgling beer nerd [working behind a bar] this happened every now and then and I’d just refer to what I did know or ask a manager… But then that was in a bar without a beer focus so it wasn’t a common issue.

If that’s happening somewhere that does have a focus on beer then that’s simply bad management. In my old job some of the staff weren’t as knowledgeable and they’d often refer to me or a manager which can works too so long as they at least know the basics.

There was a bar in Lincoln where some of the staff had zero training and didn’t even drink beer. It made ordering a very slow kerfuffle but they were apologetic and polite about it, it was definitely a management and training issue.

Staff need to know what’s going on in the cellar and need basic tasting notes for all the products as a bare minimum. Customers need to make it known that beer knowledge is a big plus, with their wallets when it’s not there, and their voices when it is.

We asked the same question to Susannah Mansfield who runs the Station House micropub in Durham:

Usually the people who genuinely know more are people who are happy with how we do things because they know why we do it, and it’s conversational, or suggestions to improve that I either may not have thought of, or have good reasons for not doing, or old tricks of cellaring that are less well known…

I’ve never pretended to know everything, but equally, I know a hell of a lot more than the average punter, and I tend to find that those that have that greater knowledge themselves are far less proud of themselves about it.

What comes out of all of this, is a fairly clear, quite obvious set of rules that really boil down to basic social skills. If you absolutely must have it out…

  1. Don’t be blunt, loud or aggressive. Getting something wrong is embarrassing and being corrected can be humiliating, so gently (and quietly) does it. It’s not a point-scoring exercise…. is it?
  2. Consider that you might be wrong. Of course you think you’re right — you’re sure you’re right — but if you think back a few years you can probably bring to mind ‘facts’ you clung to and parroted because you’d read them in one book you now know is rubbish. (We certainly can.)
  3. If the bar staff haven’t been trained well, it’s not their fault. If they start floundering and looking uncomfortable or unhappy, change the subject, and resist the urge to CRUSH THEM WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.
  4. Don’t go on, and don’t lecture. Make your point but if you’ve been talking for more than, say, 30 seconds, wrap it up.
  5. Ask yourself: am I assuming I know more because I’m older than them? (And/or a bloke.)
  6. Don’t, for goodness sake, trot out your credentials. There is no way to do this that doesn’t make you sound like a buffoon: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ If it gets to this stage, we refer you to our initial advice: let it go.

Thinking about it, some of those rules probably work the other way across the bar too.

QUICK Q&A: Which Was the First Wetherspoon Pub in the Good Beer Guide?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

A week or so ago David Martin asked: ‘Rumour has it that Wetherspoons Milton Keynes was the first JDW pub to get in the GBG. Any idea if this is fact?’

We pretty quickly established that this couldn’t be true — beer and pub people are terrible for inventing and embellishing this kind of lore, unfortunately. But we couldn’t rest until we’d answered the implied supplementary question: which was the first Wetherspoon’s pub to make it into CAMRA’s annual Good Beer Guide?

There was no way to answer this other than ploughing through old copies with a list of early Wetherspoon pub names at hand. That, in itself, is harder to come by than you might think: there’s no official master-list with dates and many are no longer owned by JDW.

But we think we’ve got there, thanks in part, once again, to the wonderful pubology.co.uk. The first Wetherspoon pub in the GBG was, we can say with some certainty, Dick’s Bar at 61 Tottenham Lane, London N8, which made the edition for 1983.

We can be sure because in 1982 when this volume of the GBG was compiled there were only three Wetherspoon pubs: the original Marler’s/Martin’s/Wetherspoon in Crouch End (1979); this one, Dick’s Bar (1981); and J.J. Moons on Landseer Road, Holloway (1982). This is from November 1982, about when the GBG for 1983 would have been wrapping up to go to print ready for a launch in February:

Advert from the London Drinker, 1982.
SOURCE: The London Drinker, November 1982, via West Middlesex CAMRA.

So, that was a lot of work for a whole heap of Who Cares? but at least that itch is scratched. It’s interesting, we suppose, that it happened this early.

Obligatory pre-emptive plug: there’s a chapter given over to the history of the J.D. Wetherspoon chain and the rise of the superpub in our forthcoming book 20th Century pub: from beerhouse to booze bunker. Watch this space and all that.

Q&A: Why Are Cask Ends Painted Red?

The Brewers' Company Cask.

Q: ‘Why do wooden beer casks have red paint on the rims?’ The Beer Nut

Having been asked this question more than a year ago we got a nudge earlier today when Barry Masterson issued the same query, with a supplementary question: Is it a special type of paint?

Ideally, we’d have liked to find a whole string of historical texts setting out how this came to be, but… Didn’t. Like many of the more functional aspects of brewery life, it seems to have gone largely undocumented, at least in readily available print sources. There is, however, this nice bit from Alfred Barnard’s 1889 book The Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland in which he describes the purpose of the painted cask-ends at Guinness in Dublin:

The heads of the casks containing single stout are painted with a rim of white, double and foreign stout, red, and export, yellow.

In other words, in this one case at least, it was a pragmatic approach to dealing with the challenges of moving and storing large amounts of different types of beer.

We decided, in lieu of contemporary evidence, that the quickest way to get to some sort of satisfactory answer was to email Alastair Simms (@AlastairSimms), Britain’s last master cooper, at the White Rose Cooperage. He told us (with some small edits for clarity):

The cask ends are painted to seal the end grain of the staves. When everybody was using wood, the ends of the casks were painted in the brewery colours. After the decline in wood, the most popular colour was red, so by default most casks ended up being painted that colour. Originally, the paint used was a special formula devised to dry quickly so a cask could be painted at both ends in an hour. Now we use acrylic paint.

Until we come across any historic material to contradict it that strikes us as a pretty good answer. Thanks, Alastair! And just to prove Alastair’s point that red is merely a matter of taste and tradition, here’s a cask of Wild Beer Co Shnoodlepip painted grey!

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

And, as far as we know, no-one died as a result.