Beer Matters

The pint, the whole pint and nothing but the pint

Given that the pint has featured prominently in my life for some 40 years, it’s perhaps surprising that I only recently got round to thinking about the etymology of the word. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary is cautious, merely stating that it is Middle English from the Old French pinte of unknown origin. Several online sources go further, tracing its origins to the Vulgar Latin pincta (cf. pinta in Italian, Spanish and Old Provençal) and perhaps ultimately to the Latin picta (feminine past participle of pingere), meaning painted, “on notion of a painted mark on a vessel indicating this measure”. It all sounds a bit tenuous - did the Romans really mark standard measures with blobs of paint?

Anyway the pint has obviously been with us a long time although it wasn’t standardised until 1699 when drinking vessels used for the sale of beer had to be certified with a crown symbol, which remained in use until displaced by the European ”CE” very recently. It was redefined in 1824 as an eighth of the new Imperial gallon, based on 10lb of water at 62° F. The word has been used elliptically to mean a pint of beer since the mid 18th century. Despite the EU and the ongoing process of metrication (40 years on the Imperial system still refuses to die - might it just be something to do with the sheer practicality of Imperial units in simple, everyday situations?), the future of the pint seems assured for the time being. Were it under threat, I’d be first in the queue to sign up to “Save our Pint”.

However, whilst it is still legal, indeed compulsory, for draught beer to be sold by the pint (or half or third thereof), 500ml bottles have been in use for some time. All credit then to Charles Wells the Bedford brewers for reverting to bottles containing a “full English pint”. It’s perfectly legitimate of course, providing the quantity is stated as 568ml in the appropriate place on the label (the “full English pint” is emblazoned as a slogan across the bottle neck). Wells are well known for playing the patriotic card, as in their campaign to make St George’s Day a public holiday, but if they can sell bottled beer by the pint why can’t other breweries, including Wells’ partner Youngs? So far the only one to follow suit is the Old Bear Brewery in Keighley.

Of course with bottles you generally get what you pay for, which isn’t always the case with draught beer. Licensees are not prosecuted for serving short measure if the shortfall is less than 10%. But as a customer you are entitled to insist on a full pint of liquid and not be fobbed off with excuses about the head being an integral part of the drink (except in the case of Guinness), so stand up for your rights. Apparently it’s not uncommon in the State of Oregon for bars to serve beer in vessels which look identical to a standard US pint (16 fluid oz.) glass but have a thicker bottom which reduces the capacity to 14oz. Presumably the practice doesn’t contravene any state or federal legislation but I doubt they would get way with such blatant deception here.

Whilst researching this article I came across the question ”How much did a pint of beer cost in 1958?“ to which the answer given was “2d”, which seems improbably low. I don’t actually remember, since I was only seven at the time, but I do recall that when the price of a pint became a matter of grave importance to me a decade later I was paying 1/8d (8p) for bitter and the mild was 1/6d. Surely the price didn’t rise tenfold in 10 years? Even by 1978, after several years of serious inflation, it was only up to about 32p (a fourfold increase). Just as well it hasn’t continued to rise at the same rate or we would be paying £800 a pint now!

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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