Beer: piss and chemicals?

'Weekend Drinkers', from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (No, that isn't us in the Dock Inn...)
‘Weekend Drinkers’, from the wonderful Bolton Council Mass Observation photo archive. (Any resemblance to the authors of this blog is purely coincidental.)

Humans, it seems, have a natural tendency to assume that the best of times was just before they arrived on the scene — that things aren’t what they used to be. That’s certainly often true of beer, both specifically (Pilsner Urquell, Hoegaarden, Rooster’s Yankee) and more generally.

We are now wondering how far back the general belief that ‘beer isn’t what is used to be’ can be traced. Here’s the start of the trail:

  • 1978: ‘The tragedy is that a generation of drinkers are being reared on mass-produced fizzy pap… Many have never tasted good, traditional beer…’ Roger Protz in Pulling a Fast One.
  • 1973: ‘It’s all piss and wind, like a barber’s cat.’ Man in a Midlands pub quoted by Christopher Hutt in The Death of the English Pub.
  • 1936: ‘…same wi’t bloody beer, it’s nowt but piss and chemicals…’ Man in a Bolton pub quoted by Mass Observation in The Pub and the People (1943).

Are there earlier examples of this kind of rhetoric? We bet there are. In fact, we reckon that, within about eight weeks of beer being invented, some miserable sod was moaning about how the second batch wasn’t as good as the first.

Another thought, though: apart from those who mourn the near disappearance of mild, and the watering of John Smith’s, are there many around today who think beer quality in Britain is, in general, declining?

Our copy of the Mass Observation pub study arrived yesterday and we’ve already found plenty of food for thought. A full review will follow soon but, in the meantime, here’s what Ron Pattinson had to say about it in several posts; and here’s George Orwell’s contemporary review.

8 thoughts on “Beer: piss and chemicals?”

  1. Everything is made of chemicals and beer makes you piss.

    There are those that like to get pissed and have a jolly old time and those that like to moan about it, whether what others are drinking or how pissed people get. God save us all from twats that only drink for the taste.

  2. It’s a wonderful book. One of the best about pubs and pub culture. I was struck by how the pubs didn’t sound that different from the ones I started drinking in beck in the early 1970’s.

  3. Having a good whinge is part of our culture, but I have heard some brewers admit they were getting up to some dodgy practices in the 70s when the main focus of big brewers was finding new ways of making beer as cheaply as possible.

  4. I found a nice paragraph written in 1808 about Irish beers (well, specifically around Co. Clare) and a moan about bread, a few years ago. Mr. Dutton certainly thought things were better in the past! All the more interesting since I started reading Mitch Steele’s IPA a couple of days ago :)

    The beer or ale of this county is a most abominable compound, indeed not worse than the trash made in almost every part of Ireland; it is astonishing how those of better rank can taste it, but habit will lower the palate down to any standard of depravity; happily the brewers are gradually receiving their just punishment, in the encreasing use of water at table in preference to their poisonous mixtures. It is not a little surprising that, some one honest brewer does not break through this abombination against the health of the public, and brew, as formerly, pale ale with hops and malt alone; but they have been so long used to drugs I suppose they have lost the art: if such a man could be found, an ample fortune would attend him. It is very extraordinary, that those, who are fond of good and wholesome beer, do not brew for themselves, for, independent of having a wholesome beverage, they would have what is very difficult to be procured, good barm, which, as every family must bake, becomes a matter of no small moment; from want of this indispensable ingredient, heavy unwholesome bread may frequently be seen at the tables of the rich, though, where it can be procured, the bread of this county is generally excellent.

    From Statistical survey of the County of Clare, by Hely Dutton, Dublin Society

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