The UK drinking culture is built and based around sessionable, low ABV beers in the pub and they are drunk in pints. Of course, we have half pints too, but these are the reserve of the beer festival, or for the beer hunter who wants to drink lots of different ales or for the odd cask beer which powers above the 6% ABV mark (yes, most Brits consider 6 to be as strong as rocket-fuel). And then there’s the third of a pint glass. It’s an official measure but I only know one bar which offers it routinely. Any licensed premises on our little island can serve third-pints but they just don’t. There is also talk of a two-thirds glass coming, but I can’t see that benefit myself. The vessel isn’t the only important thing to consider; it’s what’s in it.
Last weekend I went to the Old Ale festival at the famous and fantastic White Horse in Parsons Green, West London. It’s a great place, known for its great beer selection and great food menu. This festival is a celebration of historic styles, the programme says – barley wines, porters, stouts, milds, strong ales, plus a few big IPAs. They also get a great selection of imported casks – this year Sierra Nevada featured heavily, as did some Italians. There were some casks under 5% but the majority were stronger, with some going up into double figures.
Remember the pint drinking culture we have in the UK?
There was a lot of great beers that just had to be tried. In order to get through them you order a half pint as it’s the smallest measure they sell. It was the incredibly drinkable and delicious Italian IPAs which caught my thirsty eye. A half of Baladin Open (one from the keg and one from the cask, so that’s two), a Birra del Borgo Re Ale and then a Re Ale Extra (my knowledge of Italian impressed me with this one as a poster behind the cask said ‘luppulo extra’ – I knew that one was for me), and then My Antonia, an imperial pilsner brewed by Sam Calagione and Birra del Borgo. These ranged from 6.4%-7.5%. A half of each of these and it’s getting dangerous already. They were light, hoppy, full of flavour and very drinkable, but they are strong by British standards. These were just the starters. That half pint of Thomas Hardy’s was spectacular from the cask, but it’s 11.7% and that’s not session beer. Next to it at the bar was Left Hand’s Oak Aged Imperial Stout, a feather-light 10.5%. I had to get one of them too. Double-figure ABV beers are exceptional examples and there weren’t too many 10%-plus beers, but there were enough – four half pints and you’re rolling around like a lunatic. (I suppose this is a good time to mention drinking in moderation…)
This is where the British reserve of drinking pints (and the occasional half pint) lets us down. Of course there is a difference between drinkers, the drink and where we are. Step into most pubs and the beer will range from 3.5%-5%. That stuff is fine for a pint glass and that stuff is what most people drink (drink this in a half pint and your masculinity might even be questioned by the staunch old brigade of drinkers). But there are a growing number of stronger beers being produced in the UK and these are sought after by a growing minority. This minority are educated drinkers and they know that a half pint of barley wine will kick their ass (arse), but that’s the smallest measure they can get.
At a beer festival I want to drink different beers but I don’t want to be on my back only half way through the day. Part of the trouble is that these stronger beers are relatively new to the pub culture (sure, strong beers have been around for a long time but you don’t often see them pulled from the cask – they are a special reserve or they are bottled). As beer evolves in the UK so, I think, the glassware has to also. Brewers are taking inspiration from the US in terms of style, strength and flavour and we should look at their way of drinking too.
What I wanted was a smaller pour, perhaps 4-6oz in a smaller glass. These festivals aren’t about getting hammered, they are about trying new beers, trying rare beers, enjoying them. The Great British Beer Festival serves third-pints. That’s just over 6oz. It’s perfect for tasting and for drinking; it’s not too little that you can’t enjoy it and not too much that you can’t handle drinking a few. I like the US way of serving small measures of big beer. I’d like even more if the British could embrace that and more places served third-pints. I’d even champion a quarter-pint glass.
Pint drinking is an essential facet of Britishness. We go to the pub and we drink a few pints and stumble home. It’s ingrained in our drinking culture, unfortunately. Recently, during the Wetherspoons beer festival, I ordered three thirds. They came on a tray, neatly arranged on a little, brightly coloured sheet of paper. I sat down and opposite me came a drunk, Scottish roar: “Why don’t you just have a full pint, mate?!” he asked incredulously, shaking his head at me. A third of a pint is not masculine. It’s not British. Beer is served in pint glasses. The industry (dispense, glassware, regulation, marketing) has to keep up with the speed at which beer is evolving in the UK. I love the pint glass and it just feels perfectly right in the hand, but when it comes to strong beer I want it served in smaller measures. I think that’s sensible, don’t you?
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.