A Cheeky Pint From the Bottle-O

A popular trend in American brewing is packaging beer in 19.2 ounce cans, known as stovepipes. Naturally, the first time that I saw that size, I was somewhat perplexed. And no intuitive explanation for the 19.2 figure presented itself to me.

Of course, the internet had the answer for me: 19.2 American fluid ounces is (approximately) equal to one imperial pint. Because an imperial pint is about one-fifth larger than an American pint, stovepipe cans are popular at sporting events, concerts, and the like, where patrons are keen to minimize time in the beer line.

When I learned that stovepipe cans are actually imperial pints, I had two distinct revelations. First, a scene from George Orwell’s 1984 suddenly made sense to me. Second, Australian drinking habits began to seem (slightly) reasonable.

First, in 1984, there is a scene at a bar in which an old man is perturbed that beer only comes in liter or half-liter glasses. He repeatedly orders a pint, only to be told that the barman–raised after the adoption of the metric system–has never heard of pints, quarts, or gallons. The old man complains that  “a ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.” This struck me as odd when I read it long ago. To me, half of a liter has always been more than a pint, not less. In America, a liter is just a bit over two pints. But a liter is somewhat less than two imperial pints; each imperial pint is 0.57 liters or thereabouts. So the old man seems to have a legitimate complaint about his beers being more than two imperial ounces smaller than they used to be.

Second, when I was staying in Australia, I found that bar patrons generally did not buy draft beer by the pint. Rather, they drank rounds of smaller beers. The explanation offered to me was that a pint is a just a bit too large a unit. Being familiar only with American pints, I found this odd. Now that I know the Australian pint is about 19.2 American fluid ounces, the explanation for the smaller beers seems more plausible. (Of course, the people I drank with never had just one round, so ordering smaller beers generally smacked of inefficiency.)

My bemusement on this point was multiplied by the puzzling names for the variously sized smaller beer glasses; Australian glass sizes make Orwell’s Newspeak seem comparably reasonable. All of the sizes are officially in milliliters, but are clearly intended to approximate imperial ounce units (for example, beers of about 7, 10, or 15 fluid ounces are common.) But nobody calls the glasses by their actual (metric) or approximate (imperial) volumes. Rather, Australians employ names such as schooner, pot, or middy. And these names also vary from place to place, making it extra hard to know how much beer one may receive at any given bar across the land. For example, a South Australian in Brisbane may be pleasantly surprised when he orders a schooner, and gets 1.5 times as much beer as he expected. And virtually any traveller to Adelaide would be distressed to order a pint and receive only 15 imperial fluid ounces–five fluid ounces less than an imperial pint and some 1.5 American fluid ounces less than an American pint. Anybody planning on visiting Australian public houses should consult Wikipedia’s helpful chart on the subject.

Finally, although not in the nature of a realization, I wonder why the brewers stopped at 19.2 ounces and didn’t push right up to twenty. The 19.2 figure seems somewhat affected when compared to 20. Twenty is such a fine, round number. And 20 ounce beers are already popular at bars and taprooms across the United States, many of which offer 20 ounce pours.

To recap:

A 19.2 ounce can of beer in America is appreciably more than a half liter and significantly short of a liter. It is also the same as a pint in Australia (with the exception of Adelaide.) It is equal to two pots of beer (in Brisbane or Melbourne) and is larger than a schooner by one-third. And finally, it is (to nobody’s great surprise) 3.2 ounces more than an American pint, and .8 ounces shy of a 20 ounce draft.

Beer of the week: Dragons Milk – This popular bourbon-barrel-aged stout comes from New Holland Brewing Company in a bomber bottle, a popular size for craft beer bottles. At 22 fl. oz., bombers are a fair bit more voluminous than stovepipe cans. But it’s not just size that counts. Dragon’s Milk is 11% alcohol by volume, and the alcohol is clearly noticeable in the taste and aroma. There are also notes of coffee and caramel. Dragon’s Milk is extremely smooth. The whole experience is like a not-too-sweet malted milkshake. It is so rich and boozy that I wouldn’t recommend having much more than one 22 oz. bomber (or a couple American pints or a brace of schooners or a half liter or a few pots…) in one sitting.

Reading of the week: An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins – The principle purpose of this essay is to propose a universal second language. However, this excerpt discusses the related notion of a universal and rational system of measurement. Although he suggests specific existing units, Wilkins greatly modifies the units so that they are all tenths of the next largest units. He also suggests, but does not press, the notion that we should abandon decimals for octals, because an octal number system is particularly well suited to the mathematical process of bipartition.

Question for the week: What is the best size for a beer?

A Not Uninteresting Novella

As I noted in last week’s post, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language had a very pronounced effect on my enjoyment of reading Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor and Benito Cereno. I was arrested surprisingly often by expressions that Orwell would have found objectionable. The not uncommonest objectionable language was Melville’s incessant use of “not un-” structures.

Orwell would that the “not un-” structure be laughed out of existence. “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” As his example shows, this formula is usually a pretentious and asinine way of saying something that could be said more simply and directly. Why say that Billy’s expression was “not unlike that of a dog” rather than “like that of a dog”? What value is there in throwing in a double negative?

I strained my mind for a defense of this questionable structure. The best I could do is quote the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Somehow, that line does not seem to mean the same thing as “it is usual to be loved by anyone.” For the not un- structure to work, there has to be some subtle difference between [adjective] and not un[adjective]. For some adjectives or adverbs, exist a sort of neutral middle ground in that space. But every example I try to put into words seems to fall apart. It seems like simple math; a = -(-a). There is no room for subtle distinctions.

And even if there is a significant meaning between [adjective] and not un[adjective], Melville’s use of the dubious formula never seems to convey such a subtle distinction. I was not unaffected by having to read so many not unwell written sentences from by a not unfamous author. Nevertheless, his stories are not unenjoyable.


Beer of the week: Krušovice Černé – This dark lager comes from one of the Czech Republic’s oldest breweries. In fact, the “1581” does not refer to the founding of the brewery, but to the year the brewery was offered for sale to Emperor Rudolf II. The beer itself is very dark, with a tan head that laces nicely on the glass. The dark roasted malts are evident in the aroma and in the flavor. However, the beer feels very thin and there simply is not a lot of flavor to it. It is not a bad beer, but I would hope for more from a 500-year-old operation.

Reading of the week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville – This week’s chapter does not include any not un- sentences. It also does not include any of the characters of the story. It is a tangent on the old glory of naval warfare before clunky ironclads replaced shapely men-of-war and before “martial utilitarians” replaced the likes of Horatio Nelson, “the greatest sailor since our world began.”

Question of the week: Can you think of a situation where a not un- structure adds some meaning to a sentence?

What are Metaphors For?

Thanks to innumerable news headlines, I know that Washington D.C. is a hotbed for corruption; that Silicon Valley is a hotbed for technology firms; that universities are a hotbed for political dissent. Hotbeds abound. But it was not until I read Politics and the English Language by George Orwell that I even realized that I didn’t know what a hotbed is! And I strongly suspect that most of the writers who use the word don’t know either.

A hotbed, I am informed, is a piece of earth that is heated by the introduction of decaying manure or compost for the purposes of encouraging germination. Presumably, a long time ago, some clever individual decided to speak about a certain locale or community as a hotbed, one particularly conducive to the growth of a certain ideology rather than seeds. It is a very vivid and apt metaphor. Or, rather, it was a very vivid metaphor. It has been so overused that the word no longer evokes any imagery at all. Hotbed is now just an ordinary word, used by writers who are too lazy to think of their own phrases to convey an image.

In search of another example, I typed “roughshod” into a google news search and found nearly 2,000 recent articles that included the word. Politicians ride roughshod over the Bill of Rights, greedy developers ride roughshod over our communities, football teams run roughshod over their opponents. Ironically, the football examples are almost accidentally accurate. A roughshod horse is one that has special spiked horseshoes for handling icy conditions. Football players wear spiked shoes as well and, on occasion, literally run over their opponents. Still, when writers use the word roughshod, they almost certainly do not expect their readers to picture the equestrian equivalent of tire chains. Like hotbed, roughshod is a dead metaphor and its use is simply lazy writing.

As much as I hate to call out Herman Melville, I suspect that George Orwell would have ripped into him for this sort of writing. Just after I read Politics and the English Language, I reread Benito Cereno and finished Billy Budd, Sailor. While reading, I was constantly distracted by lines that would have drawn hefty rebukes from Orwell. At one point in Billy Budd,  Melville provided a doubly questionable phrase by both mixing metaphors and using a metaphor apparently without knowing (or caring) what it actually means: “these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touch[ed] Billy’s heart to the quick.”

Let us break this down, shall we? “To touch one’s heart” is a metaphor as old language itself (probably.) It is hardly objectionable on that count, though; the heart is still the symbolic center of emotion and there is perhaps no better way to say that words inspire emotion than to say that they touch the heart. “[Cut] to the quick”, however, is an expression that occasionally gets used without any real understanding. The quick is the living flesh under one’s finger or toenails. When one trims his nails, he must be careful not to “cut to the quick”, lest he experience a sharp pain. If somebody else cuts one to the quick, the injury is multiplied because of the intimate nature of the injury. The person doing the cutting is no passing stranger and certainly not an avowed enemy; he is somebody who has been trusted to aid in one’s personal toilet. So when I read that words touched Billy’s heart to the quick, I pictured an anthropomorphic heart having his fingernails clipped. Surely that is not the image that Melville wanted to convey, but that is what his words seem to imply. How can a heart be touched to the quick? According to Orwell, such a mixing of metaphors is “a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” If Melville did not stop to think what his words really conveyed, why should any reader care either?


Beer of the Week: Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Organic Lager Beer – This beer is a bit better and a bit maltier than an average mass-produced lager. However, it simply does not finish strong. There is neither enough malt or hops to really make this beer work. It doesn’t taste bad, but it really should have more flavor. I wanted to like this more.

Reading for the Week: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell – “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Politicians like when language deteriorates and gives way to meaningless platitudes and dead metaphors because it is much safer for them to say things without substance than to actually put forward a clear and concise thought.

Question for the week: While some of the phrases that Orwell objects to are still in common usage, such as Achilles’ heal, axe to grind, others have gone the way of Betamax, such as ring the changes on, jackboot, and take up the cudgel. What more recent phrases have become so overused that they are now devoid of meaning?

Beer Pressure

There is an amusing and potentially dangerous concept at American colleges: beer pressure. It is simply peer pressure to drink. The term can be used playfully as in the sentence: “I should study, but I’ll give in to beer pressure and join my friends at happy hour.” It can also be more serious: “I knew that I shouldn’t drink any more, but when they loaded the funnel and started cheering I caved to beer pressure. Now if you will excuse me, I have to spew.”

Everybody is aware, and is told more times than can be counted, that peer pressure can be bad. It can lead to hangovers or worse. It also, over time, can habituate people to behavior that they would otherwise eschew. In this way, it actually limits one’s own personal freedom. Not only does one now act against his own better judgement in the moment, through repeatedly engaging in actions and attitudes that are detrimental, those habits becomes part of him (cf. Nicomachean Ethics, Book II.)

This pressure also comes from people other than peers. Superiors, subordinates, even strangers on the street have expectations to which people respond. In Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell wrote about the societal pressure felt by every member of the occupying British forces in East Asia: “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy [who]… shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

What often gets overlooked, however, is the fact that societal pressures are not always detrimental. Awareness of the expectations of others force people to act certain ways that are good. Mature adults do not carry on and cause mischief in part because they are aware that they would be judged for it. People constantly modify their behavior to conform to the expectations of those around them and that helps keep a society civil. If the society is generally a virtuous one, there exists a certain self-generating effect. Societal pressures first constrain people to act in virtuous ways and over time the habit of virtue is established and the individuals actually become virtuous.

In short, do not pressure your friends to drink large quantities of cheap beer, but pressure your friends to drink good beer responsibly. Over time, the habit of being responsible will become true virtue.

Beer of the Week: Tiger Lager – The setting of Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is the Malay Peninsula and this beer comes from the very tip of the peninsula, Singapore. Aside from the exotic origin, this beer does not have much going on. The head fades quickly, the aroma (such as it is) is dominated by grain. The flavor is not as watery as one might expect from this style, but the aftertaste is a bit sour with a hint of metal. It could certainly be good for washing down spicy food, but water is also good for that.

Reading of the week: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell – Before he was a full-time writer, George Orwell was an officer in the Spanish Civil War and spent several years as an imperial policeman in Burma. Shooting an Elephant is written in the first person, although it is doubtful that the story is actually biographical, since there appears to be no record of Orwell shooting an elephant (which the narrator claims is “a serious matter… comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.”) What is biographical, however, is the personal opinions expressed about the British Empire and the nature of tyranny.

Question of the week: What sort of balance must be struck between conforming to societal norms and pursuing one’s own desires and conscience? In the perfect society, would there be any conflict between the two?