Pint, etc?

Anthony Gladman explores the historical and cultural significance of the iconic british pint


What could be more British than a pint of beer? There it sits before us on the bar, lit as though by an inner light. This simple glass of liquid speaks to something deep in our national psyche. No wonder politicians so often try to co-opt its image when they want to come off as down to earth.

We’re very particular about our pints in the UK. We don’t buy wine by the pint. We don’t see soft drinks by the pint except in a pub. Outside pubs the only liquid sold in pints is milk. The pint is so specialised to beer and cider that it’s become synonymous with booze. When your mate asks if you fancy a pint, you don’t have to check which liquid they mean.

The pint is so ingrained in our drinking culture you’d think it’d always been this way. In fact, we’ve only been drinking beer in pints since the 1800s. Before then people quaffed it by the quart - which is two pints at once in modern money. We went into the industrial revolution drinking murky beer from pewter tankards and china pots. We came out drinking paler, clearer beer from glasses.

Quarts and pints made sense because brewers and publicans liked dividing up barrels neatly. Minimising wastage at the bottom of a barrel allowed them to squeeze more moolah from its fat wooden walls. Things have moved on since then, and 50-litre kegs are now the norm for most of the hospitality industry. Yet the pint remains the basic unit for a bevvy.

England has standardised its measures for beer since the Magna Carta back in super-olden times. But this only covered wholesale trade. Brewers sold their beer by the ‘London Quarter’ - i.e. a quarter of a tun, which is almost 300 litres. Useful for barons slaking the thirst of serfs by the villageful. Less useful for your average Johan with a couple of farthings burning a hole in his pocket.

It wasn’t until 1824 that parliament legislated for a standard pint to avoid cheapskate publicans stiffing their customers with the dreaded short-measure. Today the law still sets out the sizes of vessels in which pubs may sell beer. The last time the law changed was back in 2011 with the introduction of the two-thirds pint, also known as a schooner*.

Over time, pints became tied up in the bullshit macho culture that grew up around beer. Even as recently as 2015, national newspapers were running stories based on the dreadful premise that ‘real men’ don’t order halves. Half pints were for The Ladies. Not that Macho Drinking Man imagined women might actually enjoy a beer. If they did they weren’t proper women, they were geezer birds. In this toxic world, men ordering half pints were tolerated only in extremis. A bloke could sink a half if he used a qualifying adjective by way of an excuse: a swift half, a cheeky half.

The thing about attitudes, though, is that they change. A Twitter poll in late 2018 asked whether users had ever felt pressured to drink a pint when they wanted a smaller measure, or had seen this happen to someone else. The majority (52%) said they had seen it but not recently, while the proportion who had seen it recently (17%) was smaller than the proportion who had never seen it at all (31%).

Nick White, manager of The Great Exhibition pub in East Dulwich, used to run a pub near a football stadium. The pressure to drink pints – “Half? Get a pint you softie!” – was common back then. But he’s seen a change for the better over the years: “People’s approach to drinking has matured and that attitude has become old fashioned.” He also no longer sees a difference in demand for smaller measures dependent upon gender. “Back in the day it used to be ‘pint for the fella, half for the missus’, but it’s a much more modern world now. There isn’t the same kind of attitude towards these things, which is great to see.”

In October 2018, another Twitter poll asked when users had last had a pint of beer, with 78% indicating they had done so in the preceding week. The pint is still going strong, then. But what was interesting was what unfolded in the replies beneath the poll. Although people were still drinking pints, many users said this was despite them now preferring smaller measures most of the time.

So have drinkers truly embraced smaller measures? Rumours of the death of the pint have been sloshing around for years. In 2015 CAMRA surveyed drinkers to find which measure they liked best. The half pint came out on top (34%) with the full pint and third of a pint tied some way behind (25%).

Partly, this is down to what’s in the glass. As drinkers move away from macro lagers and the three Bs (boring brown bitter), most find they want to try a greater range of different beers. It’s pretty obvious that by drinking less, you get to sample more over the course of an evening. But there’s more to it than that. “A pint of a saison or a sour can be a bit much,” says Nick. “Smaller measures mean that people can enjoy these without overkill.”

The average strength of British beer has declined in the last few years, according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA). It hovered around 4.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) for most of 2000–2011, and since then has fallen to around 4% ABV. But this statistic masks another story. Drinkers in the craft beer sector are becoming accustomed to stronger beer.

In late 2017, craft beer suppliers Eebria Trade released figures showing the average ABV across sales of all beer styles in the 12 preceding months had risen to almost 5%. There was also significant growth among beers stronger than 7% ABV, and while this represented a small proportion of total sales (11%), it had still doubled over the past year.

If that sounds familiar, I can explain why. Over the last 12 months (at the time of writing) the average strength of the beers featured in your Beer52 box was 5.5% ABV. Four out of every ten Beer52 beers you’ve put away in this time will have exceeded 6% ABV. One out of every ten was 7% ABV or stronger.

So for craft beer fans ABVs north of 5% are common. Heavy imperial stouts pushing over 8% ABV often prove popular as the nights draw in. Punters opting for these stronger drinks at the bar will quite sensibly ask for smaller measures to avoid falling over and chipping their teeth.

Plus let’s not forget the price. People don’t have bottomless pockets when it comes to buying beer (although it might be nice to pause for a moment and imagine living in a world where we did). BBPA research tells us the average price for a pint of beer rose from £1.90 in 2000 to £3.39 in 2017. During this time, the gap between the cheapest and most expensive beer has grown too. Craft beer has again magnified this trend; it’s one more reason to go for a third of that expensive hype-juice rather than the full pint.

It’s no wonder craft beer drinkers have embraced smaller measures. Who would choose one-size-fits-all drinking over diversity? Serving people the beers they want in measures which suit them makes sense. It encourages more drinkers to try more different and interesting beers. And smaller measures are not only good for drinkers, they help publicans sell stronger or more exotic beers that wouldn’t otherwise shift, all while maintaining the margins they depend on to keep the lights on and the beer flowing. We can all raise a glass to that, pint or otherwise.

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