The Moment the High and Low Disappeared

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Martyn Cornell flagged a wonderful artifact from the BBC—a video eulogizing the passage of Irish porter. It’s amusingly over-written and I find host Larry McCoubrey’s manner odd, and yet it is somehow perfect in capturing the sunset of one of the most amazing practices in beer: the two-cask “high and low” system of pouring a pint once the standard throughout Ireland. I recommend this whole clip (3:50), but the bit I’m referencing comes about a minute in:

The technology that ended this convoluted old system was mathematician Michael Ash’s revolutionary nitrogenated draft taps, developed at Guinness. That we now think of the "surge" and the still-unusual system of nitro as its own curiosity is another echo of the older Irish habits. Shortly after Guinness became a sponsor of this blog, Diageo flew me to Dublin to meet Ash, who was honored by the brewery for his work. Very sadly, he would die six weeks later. On the day I met him, however, he was lively and gregarious and told us about his place in history. 

There wasn’t anything wrong with the Irish system of pouring a pint in Ireland (which was the Guinness method as well), but the brewery couldn’t use it on a mass scale worldwide. Guinness, outside Ireland, had mostly been a bottled product. To put it on tap throughout Britain and the world, the brewery needed a quicker, more reliable way of putting liquid into glasses.

Before seeing that video, I’d only ever heard stories of this old high and low system Ash had been trying to replace. During my visit, he described it this way. “The barman would take a whole minute to fill one glass. He had to get a low pressure cask over a period of time and then the high pressure one, and he had to mix them. He had to be very skilled, the Irish publican, because it took a minute to get a glass. Every barman had his own process. It was all very amusing.”

[You can read the full story of Michael Ash and his nitro pour here.]

The more deeply I’ve looked into the way beer is made and drunk, the more I’ve come to see it as much a product of culture as craft or design—and this is one of those sterling examples. No doubt the two-cask porters produced a unique pint of beer—and I hope a clever brewery figures out how to approximate it sometime* so I can experience such a pint. But the attraction lay at least as much in the ritual of pouring those pints as it did in the ale itself. The slow process, the waiting, the publican’s mastery; all of these elements helped keep this practice in place decades after technology evolved that could have replaced it. 

Larry McCoubrey’s reverent and almost mournful tone in the segment strike modern ears as borderline comical, but he wasn’t wrong. When the high and low casks finally stopped pouring porter, it was like the loss of a language. Indeed, his focus on the word “plain” used to describe porter—was was obviously anything but—emphasizes it. Languages capture experience in unique ways that can’t be replicated with near-synonyms in other languages. So it is with old beery practices.

Don’t get too somber about all this, though. Humans have been inventing ways to brew and serve beer for thousands of years. This is why I don’t get too agitated about the convoluted, unnecessary affectations attendant with the new hazy IPA phenomenon, which has emerged in combination with social media--which is of course an artifact of culture. It’s just the latest way in which something odd, unexpected, and human has emerged from the beer world. Enjoy, and remember it was ever thus.

Update. Morgan Miller just alerted me to this video, which shows more high-and-low Irish draft.

Further update. I spent a few idle moments on YouTube this morning and found some other archival footage of the high and low. This one has a decent shot early on, and this one has a particularly good shot at 3:20. 

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*It’s more than just the dispense system, of course. The flat beer was “stale,” or aged, porter. If you want to learn more about it, have a look at Martyn Cornell’s wonderful history of British beers, Amber, Gold, and Black.