Saturday, 23 May 2009

Electric dreams

It may be hard to believe today, but in the first decade of my drinking career, most of the cask beer in the North-West and the Midlands was served by electric, generally metered, dispense. It was well-nigh universal in Banks’s and Hanson’s pubs, and very much in the majority in the Greenalls, Robinson’s, Hydes, Home, Border* and Burtonwood estates. Plenty of Holts and Lees pubs had it too. Large numbers of Mitchells & Butlers pubs served cask beer from illuminated boxes indistinguishable from keg dispensers.

Now, it has pretty much entirely disappeared – my last sighting was of Robinson’s Unicorn in the Flying Dutchman in Stockport. I entirely understand the reasons why this has happened, that handpumps give a clear and unambiguous signal of the availability of cask beer in a way that electric meters can never do. But I can’t help feeling that we have lost a piece of tradition and a valuable element of diversity in the pub trade. And the old glass diaphragm pumps were, in my experience, just as good a guarantee of cask beer as handpumps.

Electric meters also had two significant advantages over handpumps – they minimised the influence of incompetent bar staff on how beer was served, and they dispensed full pints into oversize glasses. I continue to think it was a disgrace how many CAMRA branches, nominally committed to full measures, actively encouraged the replacement of meters by handpumps even though they knew at the same time that would lead to the replacement of oversize glasses by brim measures - a fact that may have given breweries a financial incentive to make the change.

* btw, anyone still remember Border Breweries nowadays?


  1. The cylindrical glass pumps were quick, too - handy for a hectic Friday night back when pubs were busy.

  2. I also mourn their demise. As you say, there were reasons, and I can understand all the brewers getting behind the handpump image.

    However, it does feel like we have missed out, as electric metered dispense did have many advantages.

  3. There are a couple of pubs in Newcastle that still have 'McEwan's Best Scotch' and 'Newcastle Exhibition Ale' on electric meter. Both keg though, and not very nice, but the dispense is nostalgic after being brought up drinking Robbies on electric meter in my local in Manchester.

  4. My first experience of cylindrical metered electric pumps was in the early 1970's, when our school party stopped near a Bank's pub, somewhere off the A5, whilst en route to Bangor for a sixth form Geology field course. We weren't old enough to drink of course, but that didn't stop us!

    A few years later, as a student at Salford University, this form of dispense was a familiar sight in Greater Manchester - particularly in Boddingtons, Greenalls and Robinsons pubs. As one of your other commentators has said, they were quick and the dispense into oversized glasses did guarantee a full pint.

    I think what muddied the waters, so far as electric pumps were concerned, was the "free-flow" type of pump. A lot of J.W. Lees pubs had this sort of dispense, which was fine - at least you were certain of getting a glass of the real thing! Unfortunately Bass Charrington also used this type of pump and it was impossible to distinguish between their bar mounted founts, in an unfamiliar pub, as to what was cask ale and what was keg until you tasted the product. The Cross Keys in Eccles though used to serve an excellent pint of Bass using this system.

    This may be one reason why CAMRA threw its weight behind the hand-pump as a symbol of real ale. I though, thought that the cylinder type electric pumps were a really good idea. Perhaps we should start a campaign to bring them back!


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