… is not a question you would expect to be asked nowadays! However, if you were a wholesale vendor of ale, wines and spirits in 18th and 19th Century Britain, you would be expected know the answer. For tuns, butts, hogsheads, barrels, kilderkins, firkins and pins, as well as the more common gallon and pint, are or have been units of measurement for ale, in descending order of volume.

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The basic numbers are as follows: There are 8 pints in a gallon, 4.5 gallons in a pin, 2 pins in a firkin, 2 firkins in a kilderkin, 2 kilderkins in a barrel, 1.5 barrels in a hogshead, 2 hogsheads in a butt, and finally 2 butts in a tun. Simple really, but if you need a lie down after reading this far, there is a cut-out-and-keep chart at the end of this article to help you remember.

The gallon is where it all started from, and up until 1824 there were in fact three different gallon units in use in this country; The wine gallon, or Queens Anne’s gallon (as it was established during her reign), which was 231 cubic inches, The corn gallon, or Winchester gallon, of about 268.8 cubic inches, and largest of all, the ale gallon of 282 cubic inches. The memory of the wine gallon is preserved by the portraits of Queen Anne that adorn many a Queen’s Head pub, such as the sadly derelict one in Kempston Road, Bedford.

The Weights and Measures Act of 1824 established a British Standard for the gallon, being based on “the volume of 10 lb of distilled water weighed in air with brass weights with the barometer standing at 30 in Hg at a temperature of 62 °F”. Notice how all of those measures have nowadays been officially superseded by metric or celsius equivalents – indeed since 2007 Mercury (Hg) is no longer allowed to be used in barometers!

Apart from our beloved pint, in this country the gallon is probably the only other imperial unit of liquid measurement still in common use today, most often with regard to automobile fuel. In 1994, Britain adopted the metric system in line with our EU neighbours, and since then the gallon has only been used commercially alongside its equivalent in litres, even though it is still commonly used in terms of speech, usually when we complain about the performance of our car (miles to the gallon), or the price of petrol (£5 a gallon – outrageous!).

However the Americans, of course, care little about such things as European regulations and are still defiantly using the gallon for measuring fuel, beer, maple syrup and cowboy hats, amongst other things. Just to be doubly awkward, the Americans are still using the Wine Gallon, so that an American gallon is in fact only 82% of the volume of its British equivalent.

The terms Tun, Hogshead and Butt have historically been used to describe measurements of ale, wine, oil or honey, but have fallen into obscurity, probably because of the sheer size of the casks needed to contain such large quantities of perishable goods. One would imagine that a Hogshead of ale would have to be consumed at a fairly rapid rate before it started to go off!

However a butt was in olden times a commonly used measure of wine; scholars amongst you might remember your Shakespeare, specifically in Richard III, where the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. Rumours that he got out twice to go to the toilet are unsubstantiated.

The word “Barrel” is often used to describe the container (although “cask” is of course the correct generic term), or the measurement of the contents within. Breweries often like to express their output in terms of barrels, for example the Gun Dog Brewery stated that they were producing 6 barrels a week at a recent meet and greet. Thankfully the draymen know that they will be collecting 24 casks a week, as Gun Dog, like most breweries, deliver their ale to the pubs in firkin-sized casks.

Some dictionaries refer to the “Kilderkin” as an obsolete measure of capacity (and chances are that your word processor spell checker won’t recognise the word), although anyone who has worked at a Beer Festival would beg to differ, as most of the casks supplied at the larger festivals are known as “kils”, which is an abbreviation of the 1 kilderkin of ale that they contain. Anyone (such as this writer) who has attempted to lift up a full kilderkin cask will not forget it in a hurry!


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illustration of a polypin sold online


Another seldom used measurement is the quart, which is two pints, or a quarter of a gallon. The quart is only included here for completeness, but also because this writer is just old enough to remember the advertisements for Whitbread Trophy Bitter in the 1970’s, with the slogan “The Pint That Thinks It’s A Quart”.The fact that the slogan was preceded by “Whitbread, Big Head” says all you need to know about that dark period in our drinking history.

To show how little these measurements are now used, a recent question on the BBC2 quiz, “Only Connect” asked for the next word in this sequence: Hogshead, Barrel, Kilderkin. The first team asked did not know the answer!

However they are preserved for posterity within the brewing trade, as the Three Tuns at Biddenham derives its name from the three tuns which adorn the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Brewers, the hogshead and the firkin both gave their names to now long lost and seldom lamented pub chains, and the butt has been the source of many a punningly-titled pub name, such as the Butt Inn at Reading.

This useful table will help you convert all these measures from the pint in your hand to the barrel in the brewery.

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tunbutthogsheadbarrelkilderkinfirkinpingallonpint
12461224482161728
 12361224108864
  11.5361254432
   124836288
    12418144
     12972
… and the answer to the original question is … 24.  14.536
       18
        1

This post has 1,243 total words.