Bespoke Crisps

Joe Tindall at the Fatal Glass of Beer has a good piece on the enduring nature of the potato chips (crisps in the U.K.) pairing with beer, almost non-identical twins you might say in the pub.

What Joe writes is largely applicable in North America, except french fries largely performs the role mentioned for crisps in pubs and restaurants. Chips (their crisps) work similarly with beer but it’s something more for home, or parties and receptions, that kind of thing.

Perhaps the richest ales, and milk or Imperial stouts, don’t suit either, but then you don’t see these much in pubs anyway. And people still drink them with french fries and chips, all the time actually!

It’s at the point where a New York bar owner, changing his menu to include the chips previously omitted on a hipster menu, told me, “in this business you must offer french fries, you just must”.

Perhaps not literally so in all cases, but in general he’s right.

In regard to suitability with craft beer, it’s interesting that (British) crisps have their own history of diversity. The Brits are famous, here anyway, for the unusual, or rather wide, variety of flavours in this comestible.

This Metro story by Yvette Caster lists and ranks 20 of these, everything from ham-and-cheese to Thai chili. And what a market: a billion pounds plus are spent annually for crisps, see this recent study. Some six billion packets are consumed in the year, based on another source.

The range of flavours is almost comparable, numerically and in exoticism, to that of craft beer itself, so Walkers’ offering crisps to match especially well with beer makes sense.

It is as if our big national brewers 30 years ago had brought out the full range of craft beers you see today, given that is Walkers’ dominance in the market.

Of course there are some smaller independents now, Burt’s, Tyrrell’s, Corker’s are some. We get some of the brands at the “British shops” that survive in Toronto. You see them alongside the Yorkshire tea, peat-coloured marmalade, and moss green horehound candy.

Walkers’ relatively restrained range thus is completed by a palette of other flavours from competitors big and small.

Indie crisps. Makes sense.

Crisps even has its own historical dimension. Has a crisps historian written a book, or PhD?

Most of those concerned to some degree with food in North America know the story that crisps/chips emerged in 19th century Saratoga, NY. A Vanderbilt was dissatisfied with a chef’s overly thick fried potatoes. The kitchen maestro sent over a derisively thin-cooked, salted version, and ended by creating a classic: the magnate loved it.

See a summary here, in this Guardian Weekly story by Jon Henley some years ago, “Crisps: a Very British Habit”. Henley commendably looks further and offers enticing hints that the dish may be of ultimate English, or at least French, origin. (Henley’s excellent piece shows that food studies, now usefully ensconced in the academy, will always have a place outside it, where it started).

Whatever the origins, the British have annexed themselves to crisps in a surely unassailable fashion. Or, as we might, say, they own it. This phraseology is not inapt, after all Walkers’ has borrowed our cant in its pitch line, “Max Strong has you covered”.

The British will end by talking like Midwesterners and we, like a mix of Noel Gallagher and Virginia Woolf, maybe.


4 thoughts on “Bespoke Crisps”

  1. C’mon down to Pennsylvania, boys, the Chipping Potato Capital of the United States, and we just might show you a thing or two. We grow more chipping potatoes here than anywhere else, and just happen to have more chip manufacturers than anywhere else in the U.S., too. When I’m on the road I always look for indigenous chips and am always reminded of how lucky we are with the plethors of selection we are blessed with.

    If you haven’t found it yet, check out, a snack food review site that will blow your mind! Here’s a list of the flavored products from just one of our PA chip makers, but they’re definitely my favorite and one of the most prolific:

  2. Yes Gary, everything you say is absolutely true about the English love of crisps. There are rows devoted to them in the supermarket.

    Just yesterday, I went to the pub with a bunch of teachers from my boys’ secondary school. As well as ordering a round of drinks they ordered a round of crisps – the small 40g packets – and proceeded to open each packet flat so that the foil lined packet acted as a plate and invited us to tuck in.

    We were then asked to guess the flavor of each – a lively and convivial discussion ensued – there were ‘plain’, salt and vinegar, Cheddar cheese and jalapeño chili. They were of the gourmet variety with specific potato types named. Probably GBP1.50 each a packet. Not cheap.

    Yes to the analogy with craft beer – pubs will proudly display the manufacturer of the crisps they offer, Walkers are regarded as the cheap and nasty variety, rather like Fosters lager, and are to be found in pubs of that ilk.

    As soon as the kitchen opened at the pub a round of chips (in this case thin French fries) were ordered – plain, cooked with beef dripping plus a cheese and chili topped version. No matter what the server advises (and they did enquire), the imbibers always add salt.

    My boys insist on a packet of crisps in their lunch box, much to my dismay. Being from New Zealand (where incidentally they are known as ‘chippies’), I am not such a believer.

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