When my father was in the Guards, back in 1950s Ireland, part of his training involved Ordnance Survey-style maps. Some of the Guards were new to the concept of contours, the lines that indicate how steep or gentle a gradient is. They didn’t get it straight away. You’re probably familiar with the idea. The smaller the gaps between contour lines, the steeper the climb. The instructor gave them a comparison that they could all relate to. Think of the rings left behind when someone’s drinking Guinness. They indicate how many mouthfuls of stout he’s had as he works his way through his pint. They tell you something about the man. The 4-ring man would be a steady kind of chap, probably good company for a few beers. The same would be true for the 3-ring man or the 5-ring man. Not so the 20-ring man, sipping away at his pint (or, worse, his half-pint) gingerly. And steer clear of the no-ring man, down in one every time. He’d be a completely different kind of creature.
Things are handed down from generation to generation: stories, habits, fears. I had heard this story, the comparison between contour lines on a map and rings on a pint of stout, before I’d ever tasted beer. When I started drinking pints I knew what was expected of me. Would I have become a 4-ring man by instinct, or did the habit develop because I had heard the story, and emulated what was going on around me? Either way, if I’m on the dark stuff there will typically be 3, 4 or 5 rings left on the glass by the time I’m finished with it. The same goes for the glasses left behind my brother, my father and any of my relatives in Ireland who drink stout.
My brother and I have another habit, related to time spent in bars. Unlike my father’s generation we will typically have a few packets of crisps with our beer. We usually open out each packet so that they can lay flat on the table, making the contents easier to share. When the packet is empty it’s a fiddly item that takes up a lot of table space. You can tidy things up in the following way. You know that shape you make with your hand when you’re pretending to look through binoculars, your thumb and fingers curved to make a circle? Do that with your strong hand, the hand you write with. Hold that hand out so that your thumb and forefinger are on top. With your other hand, place the empty crisp packet on top of the circle that your writing hand has made, so that the centre of the packet is sitting above the hole made by your thumb and forefinger. With your other forefinger, poke the crisp packet into the hole, three or four fingers deep. Now fold each of the four corners of the crisp packet into the hole, and poke them all down with your forefinger. You should end up with a small projectile that will leave the table much clearer. You can flick it back and forth, playing a form of table football with your drinking buddies, if so inclined. My brother and I have taught this trick – turning a flattened out crisp packet into a much more manageable shape – to scores of people, maybe hundreds of people, including our own children. We have passed this habit down to the next generation.
Tables in pubs and restaurants are cleared much quicker these days than they were in my youth. Back then, at the end of a night out with your mates, you might have a dozen or more glasses, with or without the rings left behind by your beer (they fade, as the evening wears on). I like it that way. I would rather see the empty glasses and folded-up crisp packets of our night’s work than a clear surface. Someone whose family run a pub told me why they clear tables so quickly these days, and it’s not just to keep things tidy. It makes people drink more. If you are surrounded by the remnants of all your previous pints, apparently, you will drink slower, and therefore buy less beer.
You might chance upon a bar where they don’t clear away the tables as soon as someone has finished their drink. If you do, and you notice a few glasses, each with the remnants of 4 or 5 rings from the froth on a pint of Guinness, and a few folded-up crisp packets, then you will know that I was there, or maybe it was my brother, or someone like us.
January 2019 update
There’s a follow-up, with pictures, here (18 pubs in all).
August 2019 update
And there’s another one here (pictures from 15 more pubs and bars).