Events

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Pint is a Pint?


Pewter bar tankard in one of the most popular or classic shapes--one low fillet, c. 1715-1820 ff. and standard handle, c. 1700-1820 ff.--by the prolific James Yates of Birmingham (1860-81).

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While the superficial were worrying about being able to fill their gas taks, a deeper crisis was developing, almost unnoticed, but for the vigilance of Joe Sixteen-Ounce. 

In Search Of An 'Honest' Pint Of Beer

by April Baer

All Things Considered, October 22, 2008 · A lager lover catches some Portland establishments serving pints that actually measure a few ounces under. Does a real 16-ounce beer exist in Portland, Ore.?
The historian can add that this is nothing new. The history of medieval and early modern Europe (for example) is replete with regulations for the enforcement of proper weights and measures. Closer to our own time, we find concrete and charming evidence of the problem in surviving artefacts. When the British government established the Imperial Standard of weights and measures in 1826, it also introduced verification marks, which can be seen not only on measures, but also on drinking vessels used in public houses, such as this one.  Soon after the introduction of the initial mark (a portcullis), verification marks indicated the monarch's reign.  Various county and borough stamps followed, until, in 1879, a standard system prescribed the monarch's crowned initials over a district number (and sometimes a letter, as well).  The Yates tankard here bears the number 525, designating Northampton County, which is a nicely appropriate detail, as we live in Hampshire County, the seat of which is Northampton.

Evidently the problems of our poor Portlander were nothing new, for Christopher A. Peal, writes:
We have assumed that workshop-produced goods were verified at the source, but subsequent measures sometimes bear a sequence and multiplicity of verification marks.  One wonders if certain inn-keepers were regarded with grave suspicion, and the authorities chivvied and hounded them constantly. I have seen about fifteen verification marks on a single tankard.
(British Pewter and Britannia Metal for pleasure and investment (NY and London:  Peebles Press, 1971), 68).
Our battered tankard by Yates displays a respectable (?) eight marks from Victoria to Elizabeth, prompting one to wonder whether dishonesty ran in the family of the publican.

Turning to measures: One of the most famous and popular is the classic Irish "haystack" measure (named after the roughly conical rather than American rounded) shape of the piles in which grains were accumulated in Europe; cf. the paintings of Monet). This one was made by Joseph Austin and Son of Cork, between 1828 and 1833. It held one noggin, which was the same as one gill (incidentally, pronounced as a homonym of the woman's name and not the breathing apparatus of a fish), equal to a quarter of a pint, or 5 imperial fluid ounces. These--in Peal's words, "really delightful and distinctive" (p. 168) measures were never exported to the United States and are therefore found here either because Irish immigrants brought them with them or because collectors later acquired them. The marks are of the reign of George IV (1820-30), when it was made, William IV (1830-37), and apparently, George V.




Measures also mattered because the United Kingdom was an assemblage of peoples and regions under Anglo-Saxon dominion. Scotland proudly resisted the Imperial Standard and clung to its own measures, until the English finally banned them in 1855. Those measures were also considerably more capacious, for the magisterial Scots Pint was equal to three Imperial Pints--or 60 oz. A gill in Scotland therefore meant something, as in this description of 18th-century Edinburgh:
"When St. Giles bells played out half-past eleven in the morning," writes one historian, "each citizen went to get a gill of ale, which was known as his 'meridian,' although before breakfast he had paid a similar visit." People did business deals, signed legal documents and wills, organized their university lectures, or planned a father's funeral with the help of a glass or a dram. Many of the city's most important intellectual movements began with a gathering in a tavern."
(Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World. . . (NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 191)
Footnote: A listener takes NPR to task for succumbing to the seduction of alliteration and using "lager lover" to describe the detector of delinquents when the issue actually involved ale: "Portland and this story are about ALE not lager. If you think that is a minor detail, you're full of it, all 16 or 20 ounces."

Touché. Such ignorance should be pilloried, and those whose striving for literary elegance outstrips their zymurgical expertise are deservedly hoist with their own petard. There is, however, an even more profound issue at stake. Knowing that there is a difference between two things is one thing (so to speak). Knowing which is better is quite another.

Civilized people know that, although most craft brews in the US are ales (and the beverage is an accepted style in some cultures, such as England, where I enjoyed many fine examples this summer), the bottom-fermenting lager, requiring cold storage during the ageing process (from the German verb and noun for storage and store: lagern; Lager) was traditionally the more sophisticated and complex product. Only with the advent of modern technologies in the post-World War II era did a pale and watery swill misleadingly marketed under the description, "lager," come to dominate the market of the industrialized countries.

I like an IPA as much as the next guy, but the classic beers from the classic beer regions of Central Europe, from Germany to Bohemia, are and remain lagers.  (In fact, the designation of Czech beer just recently won protection under EU law.)  

For those seeking an objective and comprehensive history of the brewing profession and culture in the United States, we may recommend the recent work by colleague and local historian Amy Mittelman: Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer.

And in the meantime, there is good news for all.  e!Science News reports:
College students often spend their free time thinking about beer, but a group of Rice University students are taking it to the next level. They're using genetic engineering to create beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical in wine that's been shown to reduce cancer and heart disease in lab animals. Rice's "BioBeer" will be entered in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition Nov. 8-9 in Cambridge, Mass. It's the world's largest synthetic biology competition, a contest where teams use a standard toolkit of DNA building blocks -- think genetic LEGO blocks -- to create living organisms that do odd things.
(read the rest)
Don't rush out to the store, though.  This won't even conceivably reach the market for years:
Ironically, most of the team's undergraduate members aren't old enough to legally drink beer. But the reality is that with less than a month to go until the competition, the team has yet to brew a drop. All their work to date has gone into creating a genetically modified strain of yeast that will ferment beer and produce resveratrol at the same time. While the team does plan to brew a few test batches in coming weeks, these will contain some unappetizing chemical "markers" that will be needed for the experiments.

"There's no way anyone's drinking any of this until we get rid of that, not to mention that there's only one genetically modified strain of yeast that's ever been approved for use in beer, period," said Segall-Shapiro. "In short, it will be a long time before anybody consumes any of this."
In the meantime, we'll just have to stick with the usual stuff, for whose consumption the election will no doubt provide an appropriate occasions for partisans of all causes, victorious or defeated.

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