A Better Heaven Than Brooklyn

Did the “Half and Half” Exist in the old Country?

Between November 24, and December 3, 1902 an extraordinary correspondence took place in the New York Times. The question was arcane: did Britain know the “half-and-half”, the mixture of beers?

The term half-and-half, and the comical variant (in gaslamp America) “arf and arf”, were well-known in the United States. Jerry Thomas’ has it in his pioneering bar guide, see this edition at p. 101. There, it is a mix of porter or stout, on the one hand, and ale, on the other, or, a mix of fresh and aged ales.

The term regularly appeared in the U.S. press certainly. Prizefighters seemed to like ale when training. Many 19th-century sources, British and American, discuss the use of ale or stout in training fighters, rowers, and runners. See for example here, or this study on bare-knuckle prizefighting.

Some surely took the beers post-bout, altering the usual course.

As the term arf and arf implies, America assumed the drink was of English origin. In this vein, a 1902 story in the Times noted that British habitués in Manhattan’s Abingdon Square, aka the British Quarter, ordered the mix in clubs and saloons.


The article, written from a brash American standpoint, stated that an Englishman who carried an air of innocent simplicity into his thirties was the type to drink half and half. Now think about that one.

The writer of the first letter to the Times, a William Alpin, had lived in London decades earlier. When “young, American and full of Dickens and Thackeray” he avid to confirm American impressions of British customs. Yet, once in Britain he could find no trace of the half and half. In his words:

I read with much interest in the Sunday edition of THE TIMES the short article on “Odd Corners,” describing the English colony at and about Abington Square. I am afraid I shall have to dissent with the writer, though, as to the presence there [i.e., in England] of “half-and-half.” I lived five years in London, from 1870 to 1873, during which time I frequently visited Liverpool, Birmingham, Brighton, Dover—in fact traveled athwart and across the country, even to Scotland and Wales—and in all that time I never heard half-and-half once mentioned, nor saw anybody who could tell me what is meant by that word compound. American tourist friends who visited me could scarcely believe that the “typical English” drink, half-and-half, of which they had heard at home so much and so often, was absolutely unknown in England even by name…

A deluge of letters followed. You can read many in this Fulton Newspapers link, printed together on November 30. For the rest, I’ve tried to gather them here.

I have written of the half and half before, including in the earlier New York press. This letter exchange was unprecedented though. Some letters pointed out that Alpin’s accent must have confounded bartenders, and had he asked for “arf and arf” he would have found the drink. Others stated he looked in the wrong place, as only the public bars and other low resorts had it: it couldn’t be found on railways and in the hotels a young American of his sort frequented.

One wrote this challenge:

I am not yet seventy, and, during the years M. Alpin was living in London I was also living there, and I have no compunction in saying I had to carry a jug pretty often for my father’s half-and-half.

Other letters named various kinds of half and half, not just ale and porter but also old-and-bitter [ales], aka mother-in-law. One writer claimed beer and ginger beer could be a half and half. Another denied it and wrote that mixture was a shandy-gaff (he was right).

A notable name weighing in was Frank Vizetelly, the son of English journalist and drinks writer, Henry Vizetelly, presumably one in a position to know. He provided citations for the half and half in literature including in Gentleman’s Magazine in Georgian times.

Alpin wrote back finally, in a huff. He said that despite the “score” of letters protesting his original letter, he was proved right. Reason: the half and half was so various in make-up it meant nothing finally. But he was labouring here.

My point here is not so much to show that the half and half existed around 1900 in Britain.  It had been known there since the dawn of porter in Georgian London, and apparently before.

It’s more to show the unique style and humour of many of the letters. An example follows. For clarity, “four-half” was a type of half and half:

It’s really too bad our unsophisticated friend, Mr. “Willie” Alpin, never had the pleasure of meeting a certain gentleman who was fond of talking about “The Little Nipper.” There’s the man who could have given him some information on the momentous question, “Is there, or is there not half-and-half in England?” I reckon the brewers have to work overtime to keep any in sight.

The next time “Willie” Alpin goes to London he must go down to the House of Commons and interview a brewer on this subject. But meanwhile he must, if fortune gives him the chance, get the ear of “The Little Nipper” man. You remember, “The Little Nipper” enters a “pub” (I believe, Sir, that is what they call the horrible things) with his most adoring parents. The papa orders in his sweet vernacular: “Two pots of four-alf,” whereupon ” The Little Nipper” playfully  remarks: “What, ain’t muffer goin’ to ‘ave none?”.

Yes, I think The L. N. man could put him “wise” on this subject; I will not try, but just say, in conclusion, that I notice that Mr. “Willie” Alpin lives in Brooklyn. Now, I believe the late Ward Beecher made some remark about Brooklyn being like heaven. Well, maybe it is: but if I could have the pleasure of the company of Mr. “Willie” Alpin in London any Sunday from 1 to 1:30 P. M. at any one of, say, 3,000 “pubs.” (excuse me) and he would guarantee to drink all the half-and-half that was passed over the “bar” in response to a demand for “‘arf-and-‘arf” during that short space of time, he’d wake up in a better heaven than Brooklyn, N. Y.

If there remains any doubt, yes half and half did exist in 1900, as beer writer Martyn Cornell elucidated a few years ago, here.

Cornell’s article is helpful too to make clear a misprint or omission on the part of one of the Times letter-writers. The writer described six types of beer in general use in England, one of which was “beer”. The others were porter, stout, mild ale, bitter, and Cooper, a mix of porter and stout. The “beer” didn’t make sense since he mentioned porter and bitter, which would normally take in “beer”, if not one or more other terms in the list.

The Times correspondent was probably recalling a news story in 1900 in London’s Daily Express on the city’s beer. That story was centrepiece in Cornell’s articleThe Express recited the beer types in current use. These were similar, with one exception, to the letter-writer’s list. Hence we know the source he likely used. And “beer” in the Daily Express was prefaced by “ginger”, so it was ginger beer, in other words, which makes sense in context. Clearly the Times editor was clueless. He probably drank Manhattans.

Finally, one letter-writer noted usefully that American ginger beer did not taste at all like the English article. She wrote that ginger beer in England from stone bottles was akin to lemonade flavoured with ginger.

It looks like I’ve been making the beer shandy wrong my whole life. The deuced shandy!

Note re image: The image of Abingdon Square is from the New York City Parks website, here. All ownership in the image resides solely in its lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.