When you drink a Yard of Ale, you’re going to be the center of attention, so you must dress appropriately. Avoid white. Rather, let the hand that chooses your wardrobe be guided to darker shades. And regardless of color, leave your cashmere favorites at home. Lean towards the informal, something perhaps in a waxed canvas, colorfast nylon or absorbent fleece.
When you arrive at the scene of your triumph, compare the capacity of the Yard of Ale glass to your personal dimensions. Miss Piggy once advised, “Never eat anything that you cannot lift.” So likewise you should do some careful estimating. How much will you be drinking? Yard glasses usually hold from 2 to 3 1/2 pints, but can go to 4 pints.
Now might be a good time to bow out gracefully and offer another worthy individual this unique opportunity. But, should you be eager to proceed, it is de rigueur to regale those in attendance with a history of the Yard of Ale.
First know as an “ell glass,” for the ell measure of one yard, nine inches, the Yard of Ale was common in seventeenth century English taverns and most certainly in use at the coronation of James II in 1685 (whose three-year reign barely outlasted the celebration). By the eighteenth century, the Yard had taken the shape we know today — a tall glass with fluted neck and bulb-shaped bottom. Meant to be drained at one pull, the Yard glass was used for drinking feats and ritual toasts.
There is a legend that the long glass was first designed to pass beer up to thirsty coachmen; this may be true, or merely a fancy based on the fact that the glass itself resembles a coach horn.
More to the point, the Yard of Ale glass descends from the family of Long Manly Objects whose symbolism rivals their functionality. Whereas young maidens in Sparta may have whispered, “Hark, see how young Darius grasps his javelin,” today in Spartanville, it’s, “Hey, Terry Bob’s gonna to drink a Yard of Ale!”
(I’m not saying that women never drink from a Yard of Ale, but if they do, it probably has something to do with rugby.)
Having shared your knowledge of history, you must now drink. How fast? It is said that Lawrence Hill, 22, of Bolton, Lancashire, England, sucked down a 2 1/2 pint yard of ale in 6.5 seconds on December 17, 1964. No point in trying to top that, so take your time.
In addition to sheer volume, drinking a yard of ale presents another challenge — to drink from a Yard glass without getting soaked. Because no air can get into the bottom bowl until you’ve raised the glass fairly high, the moment the air does get in, the pent up ale at the bottom is released in a rush. Which is the real reason why everyone is encouraging you to do this, and for our earlier words of caution regarding your wardrobe.
There are two schools of thought regarding a safe and dry Yard of Ale experience. One maintains that you need to tilt the Yard glass slowly until it has emptied to the point where the locked-out air can enter the bowl slowly. A second faction maintains that you must also twirl the glass as you drink, which releases the air pressure that would otherwise build up behind the ale and put you at the bottom of a malty Splash Mountain.
Okay, you’ve taken our advice to heart, and it’s time to go for it. People are cheering. Stay focused. Don’t forget to breathe. Lift, tilt and twirl smoothly. If you meet with preliminary success, don’t get giddy. Do not use the upraised bulb to wave or trace figure eights. You are not playing trombone at the Rainbow Room. You are not surveying the horizon for pirates or zooming in on the Big Dipper.
Okay, you forgot to twirl, and here comes the wave of ale. A really big one, like in Pinocchio. Don’t even dream of swallowing it. If you think “perhaps if I widen my mouth” you will pay dearly. Granted, you may buy a instant’s reprieve, but the ale will find another exit, and that exit is your nose. Blinded and spouting, you will hear onlookers using words like “flume” and “geyser.” Your date or spouse will begin a frantic search for car keys, taxi fare or a completely new companion. No, once you’ve blown it just accept the beer wash that is your due. Be thankful that you no longer have to drink all the beer in the Yard, and that everyone is having a terrific time at your expense.
But, suppose you did remember to lift slowly, twirl, and all goes well. Congratulations. Upon completion, lower the glass and return it to the bartender or host. As tears stream down your cheeks, accept the applause, wave to the crowd. Shake all those outstretched hands. Remember to thank all the little people who got you where you are today. But do not take a bow, until you’re sure everything has settled. And for the sake of those who love you, no encores.
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This article was written for All About Beer magazine in 1998.