More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Loved and disliked in equal parts, and enjoying an unexpected renaissance in hipstery parts, despite being more than 70 years old, the dimpled beer mug is undoubtedly an icon of England.

It was invented in 1938 at the Ravenhead glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire by an in-house designer whose name is now forgotten, and given the factory identity “P404”. Although the dimple has its enemies, who dislike its weight and its thickness, it soon became extremely popular, and at a rough guess some 500 million have been manufactured since it was born.

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped 'Pint MxCC GR 29', for Middlesex County Council
Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped ‘Pint MxCC GR 29’, for Middlesex County Council

The dimple had much competition: even in 1938, many pubs still served beer in the pottery mugs that George Orwell praised in his “Moon Under Water” essay about his ideal pub, from the Evening Standard in 1946. Orwell declared that “in my opinion beer tastes better out of china,” but “china mugs went out about 30 years ago [that is, during the First World War], because most people like their drink to be transparent.” However, two documentary films made just before Orwell’s essay, The Story of English Inns, from 1944, and Down at the Local, from 1945, both show pint china mugs were still being used alongside glass ones, at least in country pubs. Orwell talked about the pottery beer mug as being strawberry-pink in colour, but they came in other shades (baby blue and a dark biscuit-beige, for example), all with white interiors and white handles, and also with transfer-print designs. The majority of pottery beer mugs, however, appear, in fact, to have been of the kind known as mochaware, invented around the end of the 18th century, which have tree or fern-like patterns on the sides, made by a drop of acid dropped onto the glaze of the mug while it was still wet. Most mochaware pint beer mugs seem to have been blue, or beige-and-blue, with black and white bands. Many were made by TG Green of Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, while the plain coloured mugs were the speciality of Pountneys of Bristol. TG Green stopped producing mochaware at the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was apparently the last company still making mochaware beermugs. It tried to revive the tradition in 1981, without success. The company closed in 2007.

Pewter mugs were pretty much obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, though Orwell claimed that “stout … goes better in a pewter pot”, and they were described as “old-fashioned” even in 1900, when it was said to have been replaced by the glass mug, “a thick, almost unbreakable article”. The problem, for publicans, was that their pewter pots kept being stolen, and they cost around ten times as much as china beer mugs. The better class of premises kept silver-plated pewter beermugs and, to guard against theft, carved the name and address of the pub into the base. Glass was also cheaper – and, it was claimed, the working man at the end of the 19th century liked to have his mild beer served in a glass so that he could see it was bright, and not hazy or cloudy.

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, from the film Down at the Local, 1945
Two men drinking from china pint mugs, one mochaware, the other transfer printed, from the film The Story of English Inns, 1944

Fortunately for the beer mug collector, after the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, drinking vessels used on licensed premises for draught beer or cider purporting to be a specific size – half-pint, pint or quart – had to bear an Official Stamp Number, either acid etched or sand-blasted through a stencil, a system that lasted, with tweaks, until 2007, and each district – county council, county borough and the like – had its own numbers, so that, for example, 19 was Derbyshire and 490 Bristol. They also carried the mark of the crown, and the initials of the reigning monarch of the time, something that had first been required by the Act “for ascertaining the Measures for retailing Ale and Beer” that had become law under William III in 1700. (That Act covered vessels “made of wood, earth, glass, horn, leather, pewter or of some other good and wholesome metal”, suggesting the variety of drinking vessels you could expect in a Stuart inn or alehouse, and it also only mentions quarts and pints, suggesting the half-pint was illegal – or at least extremely rare.) It is thus possible to tell roughly when an older beer mug was made, and roughly where, too. In 2007, when the CE, or “Conformitée Européenne” mark replaced the old system (leading to the Daily Mail to declare: “EU stealing the crown of the great British pint”), it became easier to tell when a glass was made, but no simpler to find out where and by whom. Alongside the CE on the glass will be an “M” and the last two digits of the year of manufacture, plus the identification number of the “notified body” that verified that the container was an accurate measure. To identify the notified body you have to go to the Nando website – nothing to do with peri-peri chicken, this stands for New Approach Notified and Designated Organisations.

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How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?

Errrr …

Me.

OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller's Book of Beer
Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer

Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who works freelances for Jacqui Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.
I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …

Continue reading How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard