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Why do we buy rounds, which PM held the record for drinking a yard of ale and who’s responsible for the wedge of lime found in a bottle of Mexican beer? Nigel Huddleston gets to the bottom of a few of our mysterious beer- and cider-drinking rituals, both ancient and modern.
Beer drinking goes back thousands of years and early rituals were largely a case of needs must. Ancient Egyptians drank roughly made beer through reeds to prevent husks of grain being swallowed. In early Mesopotamia, beer drinking played a role in religious and fertility rites. Drawings from the second and third millennia BC show men and women drinking beer from urns through massive straws. One scene even depicts a woman supping beer from a jar while having sex, doggy style.
Moving on a few centuries, the more restrained Anglo-Saxons used goblets with pegs attached to tally how much a person had drunk, which is the origin of the phrase ‘take down a peg or two’. Beer was also highly valued in ancient Peru, where a one-off ritual saw the inhabitants of one town brew a final batch of beer for a farewell party, before they burned down the brewery and fled invaders.
If you go down to the woods in deepest Somerset in January, you’re sure to find people in bright costumes singing rhymes and banging on pots and pans to scare away evil spirits. Strictly speaking, it’s more likely to be an orchard than a wood, because the aim is to preserve the health of the trees for the cider apple crop in the year to come. Good spirits are tempted by dangling pieces of toast soaked in cider in the trees – having ensured that there’s enough set aside for generous group consumption.
In London in the Middle Ages, houses serving beer popped up all the time. The ale conners’ job was to make sure 14th-century real ale fans weren’t being ripped off. To test the quality of a brew they’d sit in a pool of it in special leather breeches. If it didn’t make their bum sticky enough, the beer was deemed sub-standard and the inn closed down. Ceremonial ale conners still perform the ritual today.
The best rituals are those that enhance the liquid in your glass. Historically, these often developed when the quality of beverage wasn’t up to much to start with.
In the West Country in the 19th century, you couldn’t always rely on consistency in your pint of foaming scrumpy. Pubs used to have a pot of ginger scrapings on the bar, which could be added to improve the flavour. In winter, drinkers would warm the ginger on a red hot poker in front of the fire to give a mulled-wine effect. The tradition has inspired modern ginger ciders such as that from Brothers and one from Sweden’s Rekorderlig, which is tempered with an orange twist.Fruit and spices are also traditionally added at the bar by drinkers of Berlin’s wheat or weisse beers, but if your German wheat beer comes in a bottle marked ‘hefeweisse’ it means it’s got floating yeast residue.
When faced with such a beer, there are several courses of action:
(a) Tip the whole lot into your glass and hope for the best.
(b) Pour most of it out carefully, leave the sediment, and discard.
(c) Act like a showboating beer geek and do (b), but instead of discarding the waste swill it round the bottle and drink it. But be aware that this normally leads to…
(d) Strange facial contortions and coughing.
If you’re drinking in London in the coming months you may spot a beer paddle, which allows you to combine all these elements. The paddle is, in essence, a plank of wood into which the makers of Belgium’s Affligem have inserted holes: for the bottle, the main glass and a shot glass. The idea is for the drinker to play about by pouring the residue into the little glass, then choosing whether to bin it, mix it or neck it.
Beer is best drunk in groups, but the code of etiquette differs depending on where you are in the world. The English tradition of taking it in turns to buy a ‘round’ is said to derive from each person being served in turn around the table, a tradition thought to go back to the days of King Arthur and the knights of his round table. The buying of rounds was banned in parts of the Midlands during the First World War to prevent drunkenness among workers who were deemed crucial to the war effort.
In 1916, the Australian government decided to try to improve public morals by banning the sale of booze after 6pm. The move backfired, leading to debauched scenes as people piled out of their workplaces at 5pm to drink as much as they could in the hour before the pubs shut – this was known as the ‘six o’clock swill’. The tradition persisted until the late 1960s when the law finally changed.
A more sedate and convivial – though unhygienic – tradition persists in Peru, where a bottle and a single glass are passed around a group. If you’re invited to take part on your next trek to Machu Picchu, be warned – whoever drains the bottle has to buy the next one.
Playing about has been responsible for the evolution of many a drinking ritual, such as the recent phenomenon of pouring cider over ice. Although widely thought to be a product of fertile marketing minds at Magners, those minds have refused to take the credit, suggesting that it was all down to Magners fans experimenting in pub gardens, and the practice catching on.
There are plenty of drinking traditions that do owe it all to the marketing department though. The ritual of stoppering an open bottle of Mexican beer with a wedge of lime conjures up images of rancheros trying to keep flies out of their beer, but in reality dates back to 1980s America when it was created as a bartending gimmick.
Similarly, the two-part Guinness pour appears to be immersed in centuries of tradition, but is a relatively modern marketing hook. Not to be outdone, Stella Artois has developed a nine-stage, perfect-pouring ritual, which prescribes everything from choosing the glass to positioning the customer’s coaster. The Japanese have pursued a hi-tech approach to beer drinking, with Asahi leading the way. Innovations include a gadget to chill bottles from room to swigging temperature in minutes, bar machines that tilt the glass for a perfect pour and, best of all, a robot bartender.
Beer drinkers don’t take kindly to attempts to stamp out their rituals. When Grolsch tried to withdraw its distinctive stoppered bottles in the 1950s, it met with protests from local Calvinists, renowned for their frugal nature. They liked the bottles because they could drink a bit and bung the rest for another day.
Some rituals are probably best left to the hardcore beer swillers. The yard of ale involves drinking from a yard-long tapered glass with a bulb at one end. The objective is to drink the whole lot (typically 2.5 pints) as quickly as possible.
The current record is five seconds. In the 1950s, former Australian PM Bob Hawke set a world best of 11 seconds in the Turf Tavern in Oxford, when he was a student. Must have been all that practice back home in the six o’clock swill.
If Hawke were a student today, he’d no doubt be partaking in Newman Day, a modern US college tradition said to celebrate a quote by the actor Paul Newman: ‘24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not.’
New South Wales police officer Andrew Lawrence lost his job after developing his own pouring ritual – opening a bottle of beer with an opener attached to his penis piercing. Performing this unusual party trick at the force Christmas bash could well have been his undoing, but there was, ultimately, a happy ending to the story. Lawrence was subsequently offered the role of bartender in the Broadway run of Puppetry of the Penis.
Sometimes the simplest rituals produce the best results, like mixing two sorts of beer (or other liquor). It helps if you sex it up with a quirky name, thus:
Guinness and barley wine
Black & Tan: Guinness and lager
Black Velvet: Guinness and Champagne
Boilermaker: brown ale and mild
Dog’s Nose: bitter and gin
Granny: old ale and mild
Mickey Mouse: bitter and lager
Mother-in-law: old ale and bitter
Narfer Narf: bitter and mild*
Poor Man’s Black Velvet: Guinness and cider
Red Velvet: Guinness, cider and blackcurrant
Snakebite: lager and cider
*Best said in a Cockney accent: a half pint is a Narfer Narfer Narf
Not all beers are as easy to order as saying ‘a pint of Scragging’s Old Futtock please landlord’. As well as being hard to pronounce, Westvleteren is one of the hardest to get hold of. The Cistercian monks who run the Belgian Trappist brewery aren’t exactly workaholics, but on the odd occasions when they do get round to making some beer they post details on their website. You can then send a request for an allocation, currently limited to a single crate. If successful, you must drive to the brewery to pick it up, because there’s no delivery and no conventional sale through pubs and shops. And when you turn up, your car number plate will be noted so that you can’t come back to buy some more until they say so.