Yards of Ale A History

We have yards of ale for sale occasionally!

YE OLDE YARD OF ALE DRINKING GLASS – 400 years of drinking history.


The Yard-of-Ale drinking glass has been in used in Britain for about 400 years where it has also been called the “Long Glass”, the “Cambridge Yard Glass” and the “Ell Glass”. The Yard referred to is the nominal length of the glass and the volume is usually about one pint.  One yard is 36 inches but Yard-of-Ale glasses were made from 18 inches to well over a yard and with capacities up to 4 pints.


With certainty the Yard-of-Ale glass dates back to 1617 when it is mentioned in Youngs quote in “Englands Bane” – “He is a man of no fashion that cannot drink by the dozen – by the yard – and so by measure we drink out of measure”.  In the Diary of John Evelyn there is a clear reference to the Yard-of-Ale glass on 10th February 1685, “Being sent to by the day to Bromely (Bromley, Kent), where I met the Sheriff and the Commander of the Kentish Troop, with an appearance, I suppose, of above 500 horse, and innumerable people, two of his Majesty’s trumpets and a Serjeant with other officers, who having drawn up the horse in a large field neere the towne, march’d thence, with swords drawne, to the market place, where making a ring, after sound of trumpets and silence made, the high Sheriff read the proclaiming titles to his bailiffe, who repeated them aloud, and then after many shouts of the people, his Majesty’s health being drunk in a flint glass of a yard long, by the Sheriff, Commander, Officers and cheife Gentlemen, they all dispers’d, and I return’d”.


It seems that drinking from the Yard-of-Ale Glass was reserved for special occasions although it was in common use for drinking contests at Wayside Inns and Taverns in Shakespearean times and later where customers would wager upon the result – the victor being the contestant to finish first without spillage.  In the county of Staffordshire at the annual “Vinis” of the Mock Corporation of Hanley, the installation of a new member included that he drink a Yard-of-Port Wine.  Whilst in the nearby town of Stoke-on Trent part of the ceremony for the entry of a Freeman was that he consume a Yard-of-Ale.  It is also recorded that Eton schoolboys of yesteryear deemed it a notable accomplishment to “floor the long glass”.  It is thought the glass was originally made to conveniently pass up to coachman and to top riding passengers.


Due to the taxation system in force in England Yards-of-Ale produced after 1745 would have been subject to an Excise Tax based on the weight of the glass used in its manufacture,  Incidentally, this tax had to be paid before any cutting or grinding by way of decoration was done on glass and it is said this helped to stimulate the growth of the cut glass industry in Ireland where the tax did not apply.  To further aggravate the situation the tax was doubled in 1777 !  Yard-of-Ale glasses were not the only glasses to be made during this period with round bottoms that prevented them from being put down on the table.  The drinker was therefore encouraged to sip the contents more often and serving wenches would see the glass was refilled as soon as it was empty, so perhaps the round bottomed design was really an early sales promotion idea !  When glasses were eventually made with “flat” bottoms they became known as “tumblers” – although they were actually tumble proof !


The shape of the Yard-of-Ale says a lot for the skill of the glass makers of the 17th Century and it is a pity that few antique examples survive today, no doubt due to the design and fragile nature of the material.  Surviving Yard-of-Ale vessels seldom date before 1850.  Fine examples are in various collections including one at the seat of the Sackville Family, Knole House, Sevenoaks, in the County of Kent.  This example may well have been made at the glass foundry that operated in that area from 1585 and to this day invoices covering the supply of glass, wood etc. to the foundry are preserved by the Sackville Family Archivist.


Most Yard-of-Ale vessels are not truly practical drinking glasses but veer more towards being “trick” glasses certainly requiring practice to successfully consumer the contents without spillage.  Once starting to drink the Yard-of-Ale it is difficult to put it down without draining the entire contents otherwise spillage will occur.  The secret of drinking the Yard-of-Ale is that the stem must be carefully raised above the horizontal whilst drinking otherwise an air pocket forms behind the contents in the glove at the foot of the vessel which, having once taken place, make the flow of liquid impossible to control thus christening the uninitiated drinker with the contents.


Of interest to the Yard-of-Ale drinker may be the difference between Ale and Beer.  Recorded by a late 16th Century writer is that Beer was flavoured with hops whilst Ale is made without the use of hops.  This distinction however cannot be said to have been universally accepted as much depended upon the locality and nowadays either term is used interchangeably for the same product.  Confusion and contradiction certainly often existed in the 18th Century when a batch of glasses positively produced for the drinking of hop free “Ale” were in fact engraved with “Hops” designs !


Friendly warning – Due to the fragile nature of Yard-of-Ale glasses it is wise to instruct the uninitiated in the drinking techniques otherwise the surprise if “things go wrong” may cause the victim to grip the glass too tightly or drop it and break the stem.