“A word about zinc” #02: “a drink at the zinc bar”
“Prendre un verre sur le zinc” (a drink at the zinc bar”), a common French expression that conjures up images of heated discussions in a key place of socialisation in France: the bar. It also conjures up an image of the famous glass of red wine sitting on the bar top.
We have all seen bar tops. We know that they are mostly made of metal. Sometimes their surface is shiny, sometimes a little rough. And they are always methodically wiped clean by the boss.
When we take a good look at them, we quickly realise they are little masterpieces of folding and welding. Why are French bar tops called zincs?
A brief history of the zinc bar top
“There was a period during the first half of the 19th century when the majority of bar tops in French cafés and bars were made of rolled zinc. These bar tops were curved and echoed the trims, curb members and cornices normally featured on zinc roofs. And they were in fact installed on continuous wooden frameworks by zinc roofers, who took care to conceal the welding inside the folds.
Zinc, which is highly resilient to harsh weather thanks to the protective patina that develops on its surface over time, was not as successful with bar keepers as with roofers. It should be noted that new zinc is quite sensitive to the acid contained in alcoholic beverages. At the end of the day, zinc bar tops were covered with unsightly stains left by the base of multiple red wine glasses. To ensure the bar tops remained as evenly shiny as when they were first installed, bar keepers had to vigorously rub the rough zinc surface clean every night. They did this with bales of cork-stoppers, held together with a simple string, which they moved in large circular movements over the surface of the bar top to restore its original shiny aspect. Bar keepers got fed up with this hard work and switched to other metals, firstly pewter and then stainless steel. Hence the importance of being first, in order to go down in history…!”
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