Where are our Beverage Service Droids?

There seems to have been a widespread expectation (fear?) in the 1960s and 70s that pubs and bars would become less human, perhaps prompted by the arrival of the electric pump which allowed barmen to serve ‘a pint by pressing the button of a gleaming automatic machine which dispenses a liquid that is a travesty of brewing‘.

‘It won’t be long before they’re selling keg from vending machines,’ a brewery man prophesied at the end of 1967. He was right. In November 1968, Watney’s installed a draught Red Barrel vending machine in one of their  London hotels — ‘to relieve peak-hour pressure; fewer barmen would be needed’. A Watney’s spokesman commented: ‘The machine is just on trial to test public reaction. We will assess the situation after six months.’ If the public takes to vended beer… there may come a day when the barmaid is phased out.

Derek Cooper, The Beverage Report, 1970.

A Swedish firm has produced a cunning device, imaginatively called a Beerwaiter, which, with the aid of a microcomputer, dispenses exact measures of beer. This saves the barpersons from having to watch what they are doing…. If this devices catches on in Britain there could be some nasty incidents — not only from the fanatics at the Campaign for Real Ale, who eschew anything that threatens to drag beer drinking out of the 18th century, but from those of us who have devoted many hours to chatting up barmaids in an attempt to coax them into pouring over-large measures of our favourite beverages.

‘Feedback’, New Scientist, 24 August 1978.

(Note also, in that last, the bonus examples of early CAMRA-bashing and of-its-time sexism.)

How far did this automation revolution get? We think of the pub as quite the opposite of automated these days, with ever-more reliance on human interaction (“What would you recommend?”; “This pint’s off.”; “You’re barred!”), room for human error and expectation of human effort, but perhaps there’s automation behind the scenes we’re missing?

Watney’s, of course, found themselves putting handpumps back into their pubs from the mid-70s, rather than installing vending machines.

15 thoughts on “Where are our Beverage Service Droids?”

  1. How far did this automation revolution get?

    Where beer’s concerned, I really think it was stopped in its tracks by CAMRA, or at least by a wider movement of which CAMRA was a large & articulate part. The idea of human contact, of care being taken when your beer was poured, was (and is) a very attractive one*. Even metered electric pumps, in many ways a very good idea, had the wrong look – handpumps have become the symbol of real ale.

    *Although it’s been hijacked & commoditised to some extent by Guinness marketing, with the result that half the bar staff in the country think that what you’re supposed to do with a pint is pour three-quarters of it and then wait five minutes. Kids these days.

    1. Where beer’s concerned, I really think it was stopped in its tracks by CAMRA, or at least by a wider movement of which CAMRA was a large & articulate part
      That certainly explains why, in every other part of the world, beer is now served by robots. I long for that uniquely British pub experience every time I’m getting my round in at the vending machine.

      Automation was stopped in its tracks by being a stupid idea nobody wanted.

      1. You’ve got a point. When I said that automation had been stopped in its tracks by CAMRA, I of course meant… er… something quite similar but true. I’ll let you know when I remember what it was.

        1. That’s the one. As Tandleman says, even beer that could easily be dispensed by pressing a big red shiny button is still being delivered through something that looks like a miniature handpump, accompanied in many cases by a lot of faffing around from the bar staff.

          Mind you, big red shiny buttons have never really caught on anywhere else in the world, so there is that.

          1. Button dispense was standard when I first went to Denmark in 2005. I haven’t noticed it subsequently, but that’s mostly because I’ve been in more specialist beer geek pubs. I’ll be back in a few weeks and will check if it’s still the normal way you get your Carlsberg in Copenhagen.

  2. the long-gone Cynthia’s Cyber Bar under a viaduct on Tooley St near London Bridge used to have two (i think?) cocktail making robots

  3. The handpump is a sign of perceived quality though. Isn’t that why all tap handles these days slightly resemble one? In the seventies keg founts just had a black knob on stainless steel.

  4. Preventing under aged sales might have some part to play.

    Some cool links to previous post, too. I guess I was wrong. Not all of this blog is tosh. One or two bits of it have been okay.

  5. are you telling me all these east europearn lovelies in the London pubs are real, I thought they were automatons, especially as they don’t seem to be able to define “craft beer” for me.

  6. London has a semi-robotic bar called the Thirsty Bear se1.Operated by the Robot Pub co.You register when you go in and are a swipe card.you use an ipad to order food – play the jukebox and you have your own beer tap on your table to help yourself.Big snag is its keg and it def isnt craft.

    1. I was going to mention the Thirsty Bear too but johng beat me to it. I’ve also seen pics of places in Japan where there are push button beer dispensers at every table, complementing those kaiten conveyor belts that bring the sushi round.

      I think the other reason why we have less push button retailing today than was predicted in the 1950s and 1960s is that it doesn’t eliminate the need for supervision, both for when things go wrong and in making sure that people don’t cheat the system, as can clearly be seen with those self service supermarket checkouts. A pub that normally has a couple of bar staff on duty would probably need to maintain this level of staffing even if installed self service, both to supervise and to collect glasses etc, on top of the additional complications and maintenance costs of an automatic system, so it doesn’t make much economic sense.

      Having said that, I can recall being in the Bridge House, Belfast, during a Wetherspoon festival when customers were being invited to help themselves from an extra bank of handpumps to the side of the bar, and simply trusted to pay in advance!

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