DIVE BAR MATH
We Need to Talk About Your Pint of Beer
Our columnist makes the case for fixing the ratio of the classic whiskey-and-beer Boilermaker.
They keep giving me too much beer. That is my complaint.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Ask anybody who’s been out drinking with me—and after four decades of crisscrossing the country and poking my head into any likely bar I come across, I figure that’s gotta be at least, like, 15 percent of the adult populace—and they’ll confirm that I yield to nobody in my appreciation of a good dive. When I think upon the eternal rest that is promised me by some of our more popular religions, it comes in the form of a barstool at a joint like the Mount Royal Tavern in Baltimore, Harry’s Corner in New Orleans, The Summer Place Cocktail Lounge in San Francisco, Koz’s Mini Bowl in Milwaukee, or Palmer’s in Minneapolis (although that one just might be playing for the other team).
Now, when I’m at a fancy cocktail bar, I will gladly drink fancy cocktails. When I’m at a dive, however, I would feel silly ordering a Widening Gyre, a World in Stupor, a Fruit of That Forbidden Tree or whatever it is the cocktailians are drinking these days. When I’m at a dive, if they don’t have draft beer I order whiskey. If they do have draft beer, I still order whiskey. But I’ll also take one of those beers, please, thus making it a Boilermaker. A One and One. Irish Handcuffs. A shot and a chaser.
Unlike when I’m drinking cocktails, I’m not particularly critical when it comes to which booze and which beer. I mean, sure, I’ve got my favorite bar shots: John Power’s Irish Whiskey, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, Johnnie Walker Black and Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon are all go-tos, and let’s not forget Cuervo Tradicional, Bols Genever, and any vodka straight out of the freezer. But I’ll drink anything reasonable (by which I do not mean that gunk sold as spiced rum, nor do I mean cinnamon-blasted whiskey or really anything inspired by Jolly Ranchers).
As for the other half. I’m not picky here, either. Am I going to turn down Budweiser or Miller High Life, if that’s what’s on tap (for me, it’s not a proper Boilermaker without draft beer)? I am not. Would I prefer a nice, crisp Köslch? I would, but no matter. I’ll even tolerate the dankest, murkiest IPA, something my first instinct is to spray with DDT.
Where I get hung up is not what’s in that glass of beer, but on its size. If you’re pairing it with a shot, a full pint—the standard measure for draft beer in the United States—is just too goddamn much beer.
I mean there you are, the shot’s been shot—or sipped, if you’re that way (sometimes I’m that way myself)—and the chaser has been quaffed, but there’s still half an acre of beer left to plough. Now what? Do you get another shot to drive you through the back nine of your pint? You can, but keep that up and next thing you know they’re scanning your boarding pass for the redeye to Drunkistan.
So you just stand around drinking beer and wishing you had more whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with drinking beer when you’ve set out to drink beer. But to drink beer when you’ve set out to drink beer and whiskey is to set off a little scrape-scrape-scrape of dissatisfaction in the back of your mind. You want something, and you’re not getting it, and you can’t leave it alone.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to solve this problem by ordering a half pint instead of a whole one. But, as a quick glance at Twitter will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s not a perfect world, is it? Sure, some enlightened bars have no problem with that order. They’ve got the right sized glasses all stacked up there behind the bar and a tab on the POS system to ring it up. But most don’t.
You would think they could figure it out on the spot, but you’d be surprised how many places can’t, or won’t. Hell, things have gotten to the point that I’ve even asked them to charge me for a pint but only fill it up halfway (it does no good to hand me a pint and expect me to only drink half; if there is beer in my glass I will most certainly see to it). I’m sure some of those bartenders are still telling stories about the dumbass from New York who wanted to pay for air.
(Yes, I have stopped to ask myself if perhaps I am taking all this a bit too seriously. No, I am not.)
It didn’t use to be so hard. In fact, as far as I can tell, the pint didn’t become the standard American measure for draft beer until the 1980s. I’ve been drinking in bars long enough to remember that, before that, bars used to have a bewildering array of beer glasses. There was the little, stemmed six-ounce thing that I used to pay a quarter for at Lennon’s Pub in Port Washington, New York, where I went to high school. (Nowadays this glass is most often seen full of Irish Coffee, which is no coincidence: the Buena Vista Café, which popularized the drink in America, began as a beer bar.) If you wanted more beer, there was the tall, flared 12-ounce Pilsner glass and the heavy, handled mug, also 12 ounce; some places would keep these in the freezer, making them so cold that the beer poured into them would turn almost to slush. One of my fondest memories of punk rock-era New York is drinking 50- or 75-cent “frosted mugs” at the seedy but pleasant Dugout, on Third Avenue just below 14th Street. If you wanted a whole hell of a lot of beer, there were still a few old-line bars that would sell you a huge, stemmed “schooner,” that held anything from a pint to a quart. Some places even had earthenware steins, big, heavy things that kept your beer cool forever.
Vintage barware catalogs show all sorts of other beer glasses, most of them more-or-less straight-sided things that held anywhere from six ounces to a pint. But while those pint glasses did exist, they were anything but standard. You’d find them in British-style pubs, for the most part full of ale, stout or porter. But in most places, where lager and pilsner (or at least their American equivalents) were what was on tap, they were few and far between.
Indeed, when Budweiser busted a move on the British market, back in the 1980s, Harry Drnec, the brand’s European Marketing Director, told the Boston Globe that one of the biggest problems they were facing was that the Brits kept ordering the stuff in pints, not half-pints, and “drinking lager from a pint glass is absolutely absurd” because “by the time you get to the bottom of that big glass the head is gone, the bubbles are gone and the beer is warm.” And as even he conceded, warm Budweiser is just nasty.
What all this meant in practice is that, in American bars, you could usually get a short beer if you wanted one—not just with your Boilermaker, but as a way of pumping your brakes when your friends were ordering yet another round of Kamikazes; as a few refreshing sips that wouldn’t get you buzzed, when that was a concern; as a way of making sure your American commodity lager stayed cold enough to remain palatable.
Then came the craft beer revolution. As the persistence of IPAs reminds us, the styles of beer that launched the movement were largely British. Pale ales, stouts, porters, brown ales, so on and so forth. The sort of thing you drank out of pints, not tiny little glasses or massive old steins. Unfortunately for American bars and American drinkers, the only pint glass most bars stocked was the one the bartenders used for shaking up their Martinis, Kamikazes and whatnot. The mixing glass. This, of course, was never meant to drink from.
No matter. By the end of the 1990s, the cachet attached to craft beers meant that this “shaker pint,” as it’s known, had become the standard American draft beer glass, despite being clumsy, heavy and, if you like your lager cold or—getting back to the point here—think that the best way to drink beer is to have a little whiskey along with it, just too damn big.
So please. Let’s do the American thing and bring back the glass of beer.