Category Archives: Number-cruncher

Front line, back line

In the last week I’ve drunk about twice as much beer in pubs as at home; it looks as if the period when my beer drinking consisted mostly, or entirely, of bottled beers at home may – touch wood – finally be coming to an end. Let’s hope so.

Still, I do want to talk a bit more about the bottles under the stairs (and in the garage); specifically, about the front line and the back line.

Over the last two years I’ve ordered a lot of “mixed cases” (mostly from Thirst Class, Marble, the Petersgate Tap and Rotsaert – not the Belgian beer merchant I was using a couple of years ago, but the one that was first off the blocks in resuming deliveries to Brexit Island). I’ve also done a lot of bulk ordering – either beers that I knew I’d get through or beers that were only available in multiples, or in a couple of cases both: Jaipur, Boltmaker, Batham’s, Harvey’s Elizabethan… Perhaps especially during lockdown, I found it very reassuring always to know that any time I fancied an X, there an X would be. (I only got the Batham’s once, though – they just went down too quickly.)

Over time I’ve refined the bulk ordering process, generally by a process of realising over a period of time that (e.g.) six Ram Tams was one too many. (It goes out as Landlord Dark these days, seeming to endorse the old rumour that it was just Landlord with added caramel – which is odd because a side-by-side tasting confirms that they’re totally different beers.) But there’s been addition as well as subtraction; in fact I’ve now got six beers that are my ‘go to’ example of a particular style & which I’ve bought in quantity. So my stash has a definite front line of multiple-purchase reliables, along with everything else that catches my eye (the back line).

What’s in my front line? There are six (or seven) beers involved, and in ascending total alcohol content order (doesn’t everyone order their stash by total alcohol content?), they are:

1. The bitter: Marble Pint and Bitter (3.9% and 4.1% @ 500ml = 3.4% and 3.6% pint equivalent)

For some reason I largely went off hoppy beers during lockdown; I drank quite a bit of Boltmaker and indeed Landlord, but the Jaipur took a long time to get through. More recently, though, I’ve reacquired the taste for Bitter, Marble‘s contemporary stripped-down refit of a best bitter. More recently still, I’ve started finding even that a bit on the malty side, and preferred to go pale’n’oppy with Pint. To cut a long story short, when I fancy “a bitter” at home what I reach for is a 500 ml can of Bitter… or sometimes Pint.

2. The… well, the Orval: Orval (6.2% @ 330ml = 3.6% equiv.)

It’s Orval. There isn’t anything else like it. You can get it in bulk from Belgium. (Mind you, by Belgian standards it’s on the expensive side for a Trappist beer, making the differential with sterling pricing less steep than it is for many beers; if you can find it in bulk at a British beer merchant it’s sometimes worth a punt.) It does tend to be ‘young’ when you buy it from Belgium; for the last year or so I’ve been attempting to buy enough Orval to allow some of it to age in the garage, but I’ve never got much beyond a year. Young Orval’s still pretty good, though.

3. The Czech lager: a supermarket Czech lager (almost invariably 5% @ 500ml = 4.4% equiv.)

There’s nothing quite like a světlý ležák, even in the inevitably less than stellar examples that British supermarkets stock. That said, both Marks and Spencer’s own-brand Czech lager and, bizarrely, Lidl’s (Staravice) are pretty good examples of the style, IMO – and Sainsbury’s own-brand isn’t bad. (All three are brewed in the Czech Republic, for what that’s worth.) And even the Marks’ is cheap enough to buy four at a time.

4. The stout: Shepherd Neame Double Stout (5.2% = 4.6% equiv.)

Like a lot of people, I sampled Shepherd Neame‘s ‘brown label’ revival recipe beers when they appeared, and like a lot of people I found most of them a bit underwhelming – not bad, and certainly a cut above Sheps’ standard supermarket fare, but not particularly memorable either. The exception, as far as I’m concerned, was the “Double Stout”. (It’s certainly not a historically accurate Victorian double stout: they would have been a lot stronger, as well as having a relatively thin body and more than a touch of Brett. But then, if I want one of them I know where I can find it.) What this is, is a strongish but still “pintable” stout, big in body and flavour but without the sharp roasty edge of a Guinness. When it appeared in Lidl I stocked up.

5. The tripel: Westmalle (8.5% = 5% equiv.)

Got to have a tripel in there somewhere… I’ve had several orders from Belgium over the last couple of years and tried quite a few tripels, but very few of them come close to Westmalle. It’s oddly hard to describe: it’s dry, but with no sharpness (which is where a lot of other tripels fall down); there’s some sweetness, but it’s not sweet; it’s got herbal notes to it but no flowery or tropical-fruit overtones; it doesn’t exactly drink its strength – it’s certainly not ‘hot’ – but it doesn’t hide its strength either. It’s a really fine beer. (Honourable mention: De Ranke Guldenberg, which is even drier but perhaps not quite as complex.)

6. The quadhigh-end abbey beer: Rochefort 10 (11.3% = 6.6% equiv.)

I don’t call Rochefort 10 a quadrupel, if only because it had been brewed for some time before anyone thought of extending the dubbel/tripel naming convention up another level. It’s just… Rochefort 10: a third of a litre of beer that’s stronger than a pint of Wobbly Bob and tastes like plums in brandy – although, again, without any alcohol heat to speak of, despite its considerable strength. I don’t fancy this kind of beer all the time, but when I do there isn’t a better option. (Unless it’s Abt?)

There’s room for refinement – not least because the Sheps’ stout won’t last forever. I haven’t yet identified “the mild” (not enough candidates) or “the IPA” (too many candidates); “the black IPA” might also be worth a punt (and at the moment would probably be Thirst Class Penny Black). “The old ale” and/or “the barleywine” would be good – but as with milds, the field is small. I might replace the stout with “the imperial stout” if I can identify a good candidate (I had twelve of Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout right at the start of lockdown, but that’s a bit too much its own thing). I have had “the porter” in the past (it was Thirst Class Any Porter In A Storm), not to mention “the old-school BB” (Boltmaker) and “the low-end abbey beer” (Rochefort 6); none of them made it past the first six, though.

Or I might just go back to drinking actual pints in pubs. Who knows, it could catch on.

 

Fancy a pint (or equiv.)?

Back in August 2020 – when Covid deaths were running at 9-10 a day, I was unvaccinated (like everyone else), the pubs had only just reopened and I was mostly drinking at home – I came up with this table as a device for comparing beers of different sizes and strengths.

Third 24
275 ml 35
Half 36
330 ml 42
US 12 oz 45
440 ml 56
US pint 60
500 ml 63
Pint 72

So you’ve had a 440ml can of something at 7% and a 330ml bottle of a 9%er – what’s that in pints? Simple: it’s the equivalent of a pint at ((56 * 7) + (42 * 9)) / 72, or 770 / 72, which is very slightly more than 768 / 72, which is 10.75, so call it 10.8.

(Well, I say ‘simple’.)

Now, I’m triple-jabbed, Covid deaths are running at 90-100 a day, it’s too damn cold to sit outside and I’m mostly drinking at home. And I wonder if that table – marvel of concision and information-density though it is – could be improved. Perhaps we could focus on the main can/bottle sizes and redo the whole thing as fractions of a pint?

275 ml 35/72
330 ml 7/12
US 12 oz 5/8
440 ml 7/9
500 ml 7/8

Then how about extending that into a table of pint equivalents for different sizes? The principle’s simple: 500 ml at 6% is the equivalent of a pint at (6% * 7 / 8) = 5.3%; 440 ml at 6% is the equivalent of a pint at (6% * 7 / 9) = 4.7%. I’m limiting the table to (strengths corresponding to) the range from 3.4% to 6.8% – over 3 and under 7, broadly speaking – because that’s still the kind of strength I’m looking for from a single beer. (Not that I don’t occasionally buy beers outside that range, but they do tend to hang around for longer.)

Here goes then. The numbers along the top are the strength of the beer; the numbers in the table are the equivalent strength of a pint delivering the same amount of alcohol.

4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
275 ml 3.4 3.9 4.4 4.9 5.4 5.8
330 ml 3.5 4.1 4.7 5.3 5.8 6.4
US 12 oz 3.8 4.4 5 5.6 6.3 6.9
440 ml 3.9 4.7 5.4 6.2
500 ml 3.5 4.4 5.3 6.1

From which we learn that

  • 275 ml bottles (7%+) are good for the upper reaches of loopy juice but not for much else.
  • 330 ml (6-11%) is ideal for anything less than entirely sessionable; also, a lot of those punchy-looking Belgian beers are really fairly weedy when you take the bottle size into account. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
  • Those American 355 ml bottles… they’re fine, too.
  • Conversely, 500 ml (4-7%) is ideal for anything you’d drink when you’ve got a thirst on.
  • 440 ml (5-8%) is a bit betwixt and between – and besides, in practice people are putting stuff that’s much too strong into big cans (10% at 440 ml is a pint at 8.6%, which is… not a pint).
  • And don’t even get me started on 660 and 750 ml.

Admittedly, it’s not currently possible to filter the beers on any of my friendly local Webstores by strength and container size, but a table like this is handy as an aide memoire. And it’ll be handy until I’m mostly ordering over the bar again, which hopefully will be sooner than it currently looks like.

Ready ready

No sooner had I updated my ready-reckoner of bottle and can sizes to include nip bottles (275 ml) than all the cool kids started putting their beers in 440 ml cans – a weird size, which is fairly easy to compare to 330 but has very little else to commend it. I guess 440 ml cans are easier to get hold of than 500 – and you can sell a full one for pretty much the same price, which means three cans’ worth of beer in every 25 are pure profit. (I’ll give you a moment to check the arithmetic. That won’t be the last of it.)

Now, a ready-reckoner that included the pint, half-pint, third pint, 500 ml, 330 ml, 275 ml, the US pint, the US 12 oz and the 440 ml (and the nipperkin and the brown bowl) would be unwieldy to say the least; that’s a 9 by 9 table. Is there any way to simplify things, other than by just leaving stuff out?

Let me introduce you to the most important imperial measure you’ve never used: 1/72 of a pint. Also known as 7.891251 millilitres, which is to say (and this will be important later) very slightly more than seven and eight ninths (7.8888…). (How slightly? If you multiply out by 72 you get 568 exactly; a pint is actually 568.261 ml. So if you use the “seven and eight ninths” rule of thumb you’ll be off by two millilitres per gallon.)

Now, 1/72 of a pint is not a particularly useful measure in and of itself. What it is useful for is conversion. Without further ado, I give you:

The Universal Ready Reckoner

Third 24
275 ml 35
Half 36
330 ml 42
US 12 oz 45
440 ml 56
US pint 60
500 ml 63
Pint 72

First column: measure
Second column: how many 1/72s of a pint is this?

These are all good to within 2 mls, apart from the 500 ml which is out by 3 (i.e. 63 * 7.888… = 497). Good enough for our purposes, which… well, what are our purposes? What’s this all about?

What this is all about is that, if you can memorise nine numbers and do a bit of arithmetic, you can convert the strengths of any measure of beer you’re ever likely to encounter back to the familiar pint (or back to any other measure you like). This in turn makes it possible to answer the eternal question How many did I have last night?, even if what you had last night was 500 ml at 5%, 330 ml at 7% and 275 ml at 9%. Multiply the abv number by the size factor, add it all together and divide by 72, and you’ll have the equivalent strength of a single pint. It’s just a more elaborate equivalent of the calculation you might do if you were on halves all night (“six halves at 6%, that’s like six pints at 3%, normally I’d be on 4%s, 18 over 4 is… four and a half pints“).

In the example I gave above, you’ve got 500 ml (63/72) at 5%, 330 (42/72) at 7% and 275 (35/72) at 9%; so the calculation is ((63 * 5) + (42 * 7) + (35 * 9) / 72). Multiply out and sum the results, and you get 924/72, which reduces to 73/6; so it’s the equivalent of a pint at 12.2%, or slightly more than three pints at 4%. (In passing, it’s worth noting that 63 * 5 and 35 * 9 both come to the same number – 315 – which is to say that your 500 ml 5%er was exactly the same strength-wise as the 9% nip bottle (it’s actually 25 mils of alcohol vs 24.75).)

In practice it’s not as scary as it looks. The thing about 72 is that it’s 8 x 9 – the product of two cubed and three squared – giving it ten factors other than itself and 1; this makes the arithmetic a lot simpler than it might be. Some of those measures have got 5s in, admittedly, which does make life more difficult – it’s why the example above ends up with a prime number (73) – but you can generally get quite a long way by halving both sides and/or dividing by three.

No more numbers! Numbers finished! Hello again, reader who started skimming when all the numbers came in! That bit’s finished now, you can carry on reading!

Anyway… I realise this won’t be for everyone; when I said …and do a bit of arithmetic I wasn’t joking about the arithmetic. If you are comfortable messing about with numbers, though, I genuinely think this could be handy.

Update 11th September What should appear on the shelves at my friendly neighbourhood Tesco but a BrewDog/Evil Twin collab canned in a measure of… 402 ml. What fresh hell is this? Eyeballing the decimals tells me that it’s more or less 17/20ths of a US pint (although US pints don’t come in 20ths), or somewhere in hailing distance of 7/10 of an imperial pint, or… I give up. But it is 51/72 (or 17/24) of an imperial pint, give or take half a ml; if this measure is more widely adopted (as I sincerely hope it won’t be), I can at least find it a row in the table.

Update to the Update On closer inspection of the aforesaid can – and, indeed, on opening it – I realise that the beer is nitrogenated (a dispense method which lived up to its reputation by giving the beer a tight, creamy head). So presumably what they’ve done is take a plain old 440 ml can and subtract the space taken up by the widget. We can probably forget about the 17/24ths.

Ready reckoner

Or: using multiples of 71 for fun and profit.

Why 71? Well, you know how a standard US 12-oz bottle is 355 mls, which is 5×71, whereas an imperial pint is 568 mls or 8×71? Well, you do now. And you know how 14 71s is 994, meaning that an imperial pint is near as dammit 8/14s or 4/7s of a litre? Well, thank me later.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

Third Half 330 ml 12 oz US 2/3 pint
500 ml Pint
Third  = 2/3 4/7 8/15 1/2 8/21 1/3
Half 3/2 = 6/7 4/5 3/4  4/7 1/2
330 ml 7/4 7/6  = 14/15 7/8 2/3 7/12
12 oz US 15/8 5/4 15/14 = 15/16 5/7 5/8
2/3 pint 2/1 4/3 8/7 16/15 = 16/21 2/3
500 ml 21/8 4/7 3/2 7/5 21/16  = 7/8
Pint 3/1 2/1 12/7  8/5 3/2 8/7 =

To use, pick one row – or column – and memorise it; you can derive all the rest from it. Either that or print it out.

(As for why you’d want to use it, haven’t you ever wondered how to compare a pint at 6%, a 500 ml bottle at 6.8% and a US 12 oz-er at 9.6%? Now you know: they’re all exactly as strong as each other.)

UPDATE Removed the ‘US Pint’ entries and added ‘2/3’, that being a measure people reading this are actually likely to see.

Shopping

Dry January was never really going to be an option for me, if only because I invariably over-purchase before Christmas. If you can abstain for a month with a sizeable stash of weird and expensive stuff looking you in the eye every time you go for the hoover, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Last weekend I finally drank the last of this year’s pre-Christmas purchases; since this left my beer stocks looking dangerously low (1 x each of Duvel, Old Tom, McEwan’s Champion) I also did a bit of re-stocking. So here, without much comment, are two shopping lists.

22/12/2016 (Tiny’s Tipple, Chorlton)

Marble Earl Grey IPA (500 ml; remainder are all 330 ml)
RedWillow Thoughtless imperial stout (can)
RedWillow Perceptionless New England IPA (can)
Rochefort 6 nectar of the gods
Marble Portent of Usher imperial stout
Flying Dog Horn Dog barley wine
Hawkshead Oak Aged No 5 strong porter
Wild Modus Operandi barrel-aged sour
Cloudwater Mosaic IPA
Blackjack Devilfish saison
Blackjack/Garage Gyle 700 bretted double IPA
Chorlton Goldings Sour (can)
Siren Broken Dream oatmeal stout (I have no recollection of choosing this)

Price range: £2.70 to £5.00
Average price: £3.88
Price range per litre: £8.10 to £15.00 (predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £11.30

Bit spendy, really. Was it worth it? Well, the first five – everything down to the Portent of Usher – struck me as rock-solid stone-cold five-star classics, and the next three after that were pretty damn good. I won’t go through the last five, except to say that with my beer-judging hat on I’d rate them all as good to very good. There certainly weren’t any stinkers – but a couple of them, for me, would qualify as fairly expensive experiments.

29/1/2017 (Sainsbury’s, Salford)

Timothy Taylor Landlord (500 ml, as are the rest)
Adnams Bitter
Brakspear Oxford Gold
Harbour IPA
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer
Adnams Ghost Ship

I agonised over that Adnams bitter – it was that or a Proper Job – but in the end the idea of filling my bottle carrier with three old-school bitters and three pales appealed to me.

Price range: £1.80 to £2.00
Average price: £1.84
Price range per litre: £3.60 to £4.00 (again, predictably enough)
Average price per litre: £3.68

So far I’ve had the Oxford Gold, which I’m planning on writing about separately; my mouth is actually watering at the thought of the Harbour IPA, and for that matter the dear old Landlord. All that for two notes for the best part of a pint. On the other hand, I did really enjoy that Portent, which set me back £4.50 for 330 ml. But was it three and a half times as good as Landlord? Yeah… no… maybe.

What’s the point here?  Just to say that the market is segmenting, and that the prices on the ‘craft’ side of the street really are rather high, when you stop to think about it. On the other hand, having a segmented marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean that beer drinkers have to commit to one segment and no other, or even that brewers have to – although sticking to one market segment would save you the bother of managing multiple different price ranges, which would have to be a challenge. Playing both sides may even become a necessity. There may not always be enough people willing to pay the equivalent of £7-8 a pint for an unknown style from an unknown brewery (or collab); equally, there may not always be enough people willing to pay even a couple of quid for yet another familiar bitter from yet another mid-table brewery. Sadly, beer owes nobody a living.

…and with that gloomy thought I approach the end of Dry Tuesday (would have been Monday but my wife opened some wine). Twenty-four hours, no problem! Not going to stretch it to 48, though – there’s a Meet the Brewer with Ticketybrew at the Ford Madox Brown tomorrow night. More on that in due course.

The question answered

Here are a couple of recent comments from Boak & Bailey’s blog, both from readers based in the US:

A North American observer will be struck by what seem uniformly low ABV in the blackboard menu [which advertised beers ranging from 3.6% to 4%]. Curious if you ran into any beers of 5% or more.

I’m looking forward to [Moor Beers] being more generally available here (especially given how difficult it can be to find anything under 6% locally – the tasty Old Freddy Walker notwithstanding)

And here’s a handy ready-reckoner. (Wot no ‘insert table’ widget? HTML view here I come. This may take some time…)

P (I) 16 (US) 12 (US)
3.2 2.7 2
4 3.3 2.5
4.8 4 3
5.6 4.7 3.5
6.4 5.3 4
7.2 6 4.5
8 6.7 5
8.8 7.3 5.5
9.6 8 6
10.4 8.7 6.5

What’s that? That, dear reader, is the question answered: the question being, why is (typical) American beer so much stronger than (typical) British beer? To be more precise, that’s a comparison of the amount of alcohol delivered by an imperial pint, a US (16-oz) pint and a US 12-oz measure, using the Imperial pint as the standard of comparison. In the US they have a sixteen-ounce pint, but with different-sized ounces. Two standard glass sizes are a US pint (5/6 of an imperial pint) and 12 US fluid ounces – 2/3 of a US pint, or 355 ml, or 5/8 of an imperial pint. (This is also the standard size of a bottle of beer.)

I don’t know about you, but when I order a pint it’s not because I think twenty fluid ounces (imperial) is just the right amount – eighteen wouldn’t hit the spot, twenty-two would be excessive… I order beer in pints because that’s what you do: “a beer”, if you’re an adult male, will almost invariably mean “a pint of beer”. (My OH and I used to talk about going for “a swift half”; even then I’d order pints.) So, when I think of three or four beers I’m thinking of three or four pints – and when I think of a session beer, I’m thinking of a beer I could drink three or four pints of without regretting it, which realistically means nothing very much over 4%.

What that table tells you is what you get, relative to an imperial pint, in a given ABV at 16 or 12 US fluid ounces: so a 4.8% beer is the 16-oz equivalent of a pint at 4%, or the 12-oz equivalent of a pint at 3%. See where I’m going? If your idea of a ‘session beer’ is one that leaves you comfortably merry, but not downright palatic, after four beers – and if your idea of “a beer” is 5/8 of an imperial pint – then a 4% beer is going to be no good to you at all: you’ll want a 6.4% beer to get the same effect as an imperial pint at 4%. Even if 16-oz measures are standard (see comments), you’ll be looking for 4.8% minimum.

Just on the basis of a 16-ounce glass, we’d expect US ‘session beers’ to range between 4.2% and 5.4%, for exactly the same reason that British session beers generally range between 3.5% and 4.5%. And we’d expect US brewers to have little or no interest in anything below 3.6%, for exactly the same reason that British brewers don’t tend to do much below 3%. On the other hand, we’d expect US beer drinkers to treat beer strengths up to 8% as perfectly normal, for exactly the same reason that British drinkers are happy going up to 6-6.5% (e.g. Wobby Bob, Elland Porter).

Then again, on the basis of a twelve-ounce glass (bottle; bottle, glass) you’d expect session beers between 5% and 7%, a ‘floor’ of 4.8% and a ‘ceiling’ of 10% – which not only makes a better story but seems more in line with complaints about ABV-crazy brewing, misunderstandings of ‘session beer’, etc, etc. Perhaps bottle sizes are more influential than glass sizes. Or perhaps it’s not all in the glassware!

In comments: a recent visitor to the US necessitates extensive modification to the original version of this theory by revealing that 16 oz glassware is in fact standard. Cheers, Ron!

Uncool

In comments over at Ron’s, John Clarke raises an interesting point:

The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer “warm” because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm – especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.

(“The way described here” refers to… no, I won’t spoil the shock for you. Read the whole thing.)

This got me thinking about the ‘warm beer’ trope. If you plug the phrase ‘warm beer’ (without quotes) into the Google Ngram Viewer, you can see several distinct periods. From a low point at the turn of the century, the frequency of the phrase creeps upwards through the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but it’s fairly low throughout. From Google Books we can see that, before 1941, the phrase ‘warm beer’ is used in several different contexts:

  1. Recipes for beer that’s warmed on the stove before drinking (what we’d now call ‘mulled beer’)
  2. Same as 1, but for medicinal or other household purposes (warm beer is good for cleaning oak furniture, apparently)
  3. First-person references to drinking bottled beer that hasn’t been kept cool, particularly in hot countries
  4. Occasional references to problems in serving draught beer, invariably from the point of view of the server

The last of these is interesting: serving beer that was warm when it hit the glass was recognised as something that might drive custom away as early as the 1930s, if not before. (In one article the tendency to end up with warm beer is cited as a reason for the limited takeup of kegging!)

What we don’t see is any reference to drinkers finding cask beer to be warm in the glass. This rapidly changes from 1941 onwards; there’s a steep climb on the Ngram Viewer’s chart, peaking in 1945. The frequency then drops back down, to settle at a higher level in the early 50s. It’s in 1941 that Google Books finds its first reference to ‘warm beer’ being the norm in Britain – and there’s only one in the whole year. In 1942 – with the arrival of GIs in Britain – the floodgates open. From 1942 to 1946 the references to warm beer are legion; it’s often mentioned together with tea, as typical features of the English landscape which American newcomers found baffling. Warm beer in this sense is referred to just as often as warm beer from bottles. Interestingly, a lot of these references are also from the point of view of soldiers on active service. Perhaps from a GI’s point of view there wasn’t much to choose between beer that had been kept in a hole in the ground in North Africa and beer from a quaint old English hand pump – they both met the same lowered expectations.

As I said above, the Ngram Viewer shows a lower frequency of references after the war; Google Books also goes a bit quiet. This surprised me – I was expecting George Orwell’s famous reference to warm beer to have had more of an impact. (More on that later.) The ‘warm English beer’ trope may have got going when the GIs came, but when they left it seems to have stopped again – or at least become dormant; after 1946 we’re back to the warm bottles and problems with inadequately chilled lines. It’s worth emphasising that this idea of warm beer as a problem, from the server’s point of view, is not at all the same thing as the idea of ‘warm beer’ being the norm. If anything it’s the opposite, as they show that English bar staff in the 1950s and 60s were worrying about their beer occasionally being too warm – just as they had done in the 1930s.

In about 1973 the Ngram chart line starts to climb again; it climbs and climbs until it plateaus at the start of the 90s. This may be partly in response to the rise of kegging, which by then was becoming ubiquitous; some sentimental souls may have seen warm beer as part of an England we had lost. My trawl in Google Books didn’t turn up any evidence to support this, however. What I did find was an association between ‘warm beer’ and another 1970s development: CAMRA, and the broader movement towards taking English beer styles seriously. Ironically, the ‘warm beer’ trope seems to have been given a boost by several people – not all of them called Protz – complaining about it, and pointing out painstakingly that cellar-temperature cask beer is not what anyone from south of the Arctic Circle would call ‘warm’.

Throughout the 1980s, if Google Books is to be trusted, references to warm bottled beer remained the main source of ‘warm beer’ quotations; the idea of the traditional warmness of English beer had taken hold to some extent, but it was still fighting it out with an equal number of grumpy (but well-informed) arguments to the contrary. In fact the idea of ‘warm beer’ as synonymous with Englishness doesn’t seem to take hold until much later. How much later? Well, certainly after 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major told us that

Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.

Before we get back to the beer, it’s worth noting why it was that the PM felt the need to evoke an unchanging essence of Britishness. The answer is in the next (and concluding) paragraph of his speech:

Surely we trust our own integrity as a people quite enough to fear nothing in Europe. We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us. After 20 years we have come of age in Europe. One Conservative leader put us there. This Conservative leader means us to thrive there. So let’s get on with it.

For Major, in other words, a sentimental vision of an unchanging – even unchangeable – Britain was the counterweight to a commitment to remaining, and playing a bigger role, in the EU. One can think of worse causes for the British pint to be enlisted in. Be that as it may, it was surely this speech which launched the idea of warm beer as an inherent part of Britishness. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the GIs’ catalogues of British quaintness, Major wasn’t evoking Britishness as seen from outside: these were British tropes which we ourselves could be proud of, or mock ironically, or mock our own pride in, or be proud of mocking, or whatever. (Complicated business, being British.)

As for the Orwell quote, it comes from “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the (in)famous wartime essay in which he described Britain as “a family with the wrong members in charge”, and which is generally seen as a low-water mark in the radicalism of Orwell’s politics. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see him banging on about warm beer. Except that he didn’t – and, if you read the quotation, you’ll realise that Major didn’t even say that he did. All the guff about the eternal British verities of county cricket and pools forms was Major’s own invention (which was ironic, really, considering that Major’s own government was about to cut the legs from under the pools companies by bringing in the National Lottery). The same goes for the warm beer – and, in fact, the entire mistily harmonious message. Orwell’s own vision of England was a lot more hard-edged, and looks a lot more like a celebration of diversity and change:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

Orwell gets a bit soggy and essentialist in the second paragraph – and the conclusion is a majestic piece of having your cake and eating it – but it’s striking that those old maids on their bikes are presented as an example of disharmony: they’re nothing like the Lancashire mill-workers or the kids playing pinball in Soho. And, more importantly (for this blog at least!), the beer isn’t characteristically warm – it’s bitter; in fact it’s bitterer than the beer in any foreign country! (He did like his statements sweeping, did Orwell; you start to notice it if you read his stuff long enough.)

As for the contemporary fortunes of the ‘warm beer’ trope, I’d like to be able to report that the phrase became a stock signifier of Englishness (or possibly Britishness) straight after Major’s speech. I’d like to, but both Google Books and the Ngram Viewer are telling me otherwise. The phrase climbs in frequency very gently between 1992 and 1996, then climbs much more steeply over the next eight years; it peaks in 2004 and then declines gently until 2008 (the Ngram Viewer’s cut-off point). Similarly, Google Books shows very little action for the rest of the 90s; there are at least as many references to beer recipes and to unpleasantly warm cans and bottles (generally in hot countries) as there are to the proverbial Britishness of warm beer. Something certainly happened to give the phrase more prominence some time in the late 1990s, but exactly what it was – and when it happened – is unclear. Interestingly, if we put other phrases from Major’s speech into the Ngram Viewer – phrases like ‘pools fillers’ and ‘old maids cycling’ (Orwell wrote ‘biking’) – we see a similar pattern: a rapid rise after 1994, a peak between 2000 and 2004, then decline. Perhaps it simply took time for Major’s imagery to work its way into print (a book called “Invincible Green Suburbs” was published in 1998). Perhaps it has something to do with ‘Cool Britannia’ (1997-8) – and in particular Tony Blair’s eagerness to jump that wave when he became Prime Minister in the middle of it; perhaps the TV programme “I Love 1993” (broadcast in September 2001) would be worth checking out.

John Major didn’t invent the image of warm cask beer. It had been knocking around the national consciousness ever since 1942; thirty years after that, the image had been given greater salience both by the rise of keg and, paradoxically, by the efforts of cask devotees to debunk it. (You can’t say “it’s not true that cask beer is served warm” without saying the words “cask beer is served warm”!) But the prominence that the image has enjoyed recently is just that, recent. Before Major (and before Cool Britannia), “warm cask beer” was a sneer and a debating point. It took a controversial speech by an unpopular Prime Minister to turn it into a popular image of a British tradition. Like many imagined traditions, this one is barely old enough to drink.

Update (8th March) This conclusion needs a bit of qualification. As commenters have pointed out, ‘warm beer’ jokes abound in Goscinny & Uderzo’s Astérix chez les Bretons – written in 1965 and translated as Asterix in Britain in 1970. Further Googling for the phrase “as British as warm beer” finds multiple occurrences in the late 1990s and after – as we’d expect – but also one from 1986 and one from 1965; unlike those in the Asterix book, these don’t appear to have been written by outsiders looking in. So perhaps the ‘warm beer’ trope had a bit more of a hold before 1993 than I gave it credit for. I’d still maintain that Major’s speech gave it, at the very least, a big push towards the prominence it now has.

¡Bien! ¡Bien! ¡Super super!

If only they could both lose…

In a statement the Portman Group said: “The independent complaints panel considered that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘loco’, listed as ‘crazy, or off one’s head’, was problematic when used in relation to an alcoholic drink, as it could suggest irresponsible or immoderate consumption, and that care must be taken when using the word on packaging or promotional material.”

Jim Sloan, President of Phusion Projects, said: “We respectfully disagree with the decision of the Independent Complaints Panel of the Portman Group. Phusion Projects has made clear from the outset that the ‘Four Loko’ brand name was intended to refer to the product’s unusual flavours and its four original ingredients.”

Got that? Four as in four (original) ingredients; Loko as in… um… ‘loco’ meaning ‘crazy’, obviously, but referring to unusual flavours. Oh, those crazy flavours. (Flavours include grape, coconut, watermelon, peach, lemon and lime, lemonade and cranberry lemonade.)

We’ve been here before. Four Loko is, basically, loopy-juice; it’s made with malt liquor in the US and with grain alcohol in Europe, with a variety of flavours (all of them sweet), and sold at strengths of 6%, 8% and most commonly 12%. One other thing: it’s sold in cans, of 23.5 US fluid ounces – just under two standard 12-oz bottles, in other words, or 695 ml. That’s an awful lot of alcohol, in readily-neckable form.

And those four (original) ingredients? One of them is alcohol (which at least has the virtue of frankness). Another is taurine, the substance which gave Red Bull its name and whose properties, despite a huge multi-year natural experiment in adding it to soft drinks, remain unclear. The other two are caffeine and guarana, which – whatever else of an exotic and rain-forest-y variety might be in it – is a natural source of caffeine. So, effectively, it was Two Loko: alcohol and caffeine. It’s a powerful combination, and works in (let’s be honest) an enjoyable way; when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities I once spent an entire day going from bar to bar in Barcelona, alternating wine and espresso. (I didn’t have a lot to do the next day.) But neither alcohol nor caffeine is actually good for you in large quantities; the combination, by keeping you alert for longer, makes it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of alcohol, while simultaneously making it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of caffeine. Mixing alcohol and caffeine in large quantities (such as 695 ml – just under a pint and a quarter) and at high alcohol concentrations (such as 12%), is basically a bad idea. Put it another way: if you drink a can of old-style Four Loko you’ve basically just drunk 2/3 of a bottle of Buckie (“the UK’s version of Four Loko”, confirms Vice magazine).

Jacob Sullum of the right-Libertarian Reason magazine has tried to defend Four Loko on two occasions, on general “keep the government out of my business” grounds, but it’s a tough pitch. The best he could come up with was to point out that making the cans resealable (to reduce the temptation to neck the entire can) wouldn’t actually stop anyone necking the entire can if they wanted to (true, but so what?); that coffee is used in some cocktails (which aren’t usually served in glasses holding 695 ml); and (my favourite) that “A can of Four Loko contains less alcohol … than some big bottles of craft beer.” A can of Four Loko contains 83.4 mls of alcohol; for an Imperial pint to deliver that much alcohol it would need to be 14.7%. Those are some big bottles of craft beer.

Anyway, a couple of years ago and in the wake of some horribly predictable and happily only near-fatal excess consumption incidents, the powers that be in the US decided (to Reason‘s chagrin) that the whole alcohol/caffeine thing was bad news, and Four Loko was reformulated to contain alcohol and, er, that’s it. So that’s One Loko, then – only not Loko in the sense of… er… can we get back to you on this? Which is where we came in: with Phusion Projects gamely trying to push their 12%-by-volume grain-alcohol-and-Starburst three-pints-of-lager-inna-can confection in the UK, and our old mates at Portman gravely ticking them off for being so irresponsible as to suggest that getting drunk might be enjoyable in some way. As I said at the top, if only they could both lose!

As we drive through the rain

Following the IndyManBeerCon, another defining characteristic of craft beer has been proposed:

we knew it was going to be pricey and so it proved, but something labelled “craft” is, allegedly, supposed to be pricey, so I felt you could roll with that punch
Tyson

Apparently most cask beers at IMBC worked out at three tokens per pint, while the keg beers were (mostly?) six tokens per pint or more. With tokens available at 11 for £10, the cask was pretty reasonable but that keg was expensive stuff.

Does this matter?

I agree, pricing was high for some beers. I guess I just expected that though. Plus I’m willing to pay higher prices for the opportunity given: so many interesting, unique, and hard-to-find beers in one place on draught! Stunning!
– a commenter on Tyson’s post

Evidently not to some people. But I think it’s a road beer-lovers should be very wary of going down, or encouraging brewers to go down.

Look at it this way. The drinking-age (over-17) population of the UK is just under 50,000,000. Ten million of those are over 64, so presumably living on a pension. Some pensioners seem to do OK, but it’s not a wild generalisation to say that people in this group tend not to have money to burn.

That leaves 40 million – 80% of the total – of working and drinking age. 70% of those 40,000,000 are in fact working – the remainder are classed either as unemployed or as economically inactive (we can go into the difference between those another time if anyone’s intrigued).

Now, median annual earnings across the working population – the level that splits the working population in two, with as many people above the line as below it – are about £21,000. After that the income graph slopes upward quite slowly; the 75th centile, the point at which you leave three-quarters of the working population behind, is somewhere around £33,000.

So, out of 50 million people who either drink beer or could do so without breaking the law, ten million are on pensions; twelve million are of earning age but not actually earning, because they’re on benefits or being supported by somebody else; and fourteen million, half of the remainder, are in work but earning less than 21k. Anyone earning 33k or more is in the top 25% of the working population – which itself is not much more than half of the total drinking-age population.

I’m not suggesting here that people on low incomes can’t afford expensive beer – you could use very similar logic to say that they can’t afford beer full stop, and you could argue that if you can only afford one beer a week you might as well make it a good one. The point is that people on low incomes are much more likely to be put off by high prices – and people on low incomes are actually the large majority of the population. Saying “of course the prices are high, what would you expect” amounts to telling seven out of eight drinkers that they’re not wanted.

Mild Magic – the last post

So, farewell then, Mild Magic 2012.

Since the 14th of April I’ve drunk – or at least asked for – mild in 49 different pubs, almost all of which had someone behind the bar who knew all about MM.

The final tally looks like this:

The big three
Robinson’s: 6 (5 1892, 1 1892 Dark)
Hyde’s: 6 (4 1863, 2 Owd Oak)
Holt’s: 6

(So much for my initial impression that light mild was a thing of the past. Maybe this is the case on the ‘guest beer’ circuit, but it’s still going strong locally. Admittedly neither Hyde’s nor Robinson’s call it mild – Hyde’s 1863 is actually badged as a bitter – but that’s another discussion.)

Other tied houses (all dark mild except the last)
Lees: 1
Beartown: 1
Oakwell: 1
Dunham Massey: 1
Boggart: 1
Bootleg: 1 (not mild)

Free houses
Spoons: 10 (8 dark mild, 1 light mild, 1 non-mild)
Other: 15 (9 dark mild, 3 light mild (all Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best), 3 non-mild)

Best milds: Oakwell Dark Mild (New Victoria); Bank Top Dark Mild (Sand Bar); Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best (the Beech); Holt’s Mild (most places)
Most unusual mild (in a successful way): Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild (Costello’s)
Most unusual mild (in a less successful way): Offbeat Wild Blackberry Mild, Smuttynose Murrican Mild
Mild I hope to see again some time soon: Wolf Woild Moild
Mild I hope never to see again: Coach House Gunpowder Mild
Best-kept secret: Oakwell
Most comfortable pubs: the City; the Hind’s Head; the Crown (Stockport)
Pubs to which I will return: the Railway (Portwood); the Fletcher Moss (Didsbury); the New Oxford (Salford)
Pubs to which I probably won’t: the Sidings, the Baker’s Vaults, the Horse and Farrier

Now, does anyone know what I can do with four pints’ worth of mild tokens for the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival? (Other than going to the Festival and drinking mild all day, that is.) Perhaps another time the prize could be Anything But Mild tokens – it’s just a thought. The experience of Mild Magic should have given us all such a taste for the stuff that we could be relied on to spend our own money on it, after all.