Category Archives: Beer history

VIDEO: 1975 Covent Garden Beer Exhibition

We’re very grateful to Steve AKA @untilnextyear for pointing this clip out to us. Do any of you CAMRA veterans recognise the participants, or perhaps even yourself? The hipster in the Washington University top wouldn’t look out of place at a craft beer festival in 2015.

PS. Our long article about Covent Garden ’75 features in the current edition of CAMRA’s BEER magazine which is technically only available to members but is probably also knocking about a shelf in your local real ale pub.

English Pubs on the Continent

In 1965, British mega-brewery Watney Mann opened a pub in Paris — the Sir Winston Churchill.

According to Helga Graham in an article in the Guardian published in 1970 (‘Mild and Bitter Spoken Here’, 27/09, p.15), this started when Watney’s hired Serge Herblot, ‘a very French Frenchman in an English blazer and tie’. He was tasked with driving a Bedford van with a mobile bar in the back around Paris and giving the hard sell to Bistro owners; they thought him ‘seriously affected by English eccentricity’ and weren’t interested. It was he, Ms. Graham says, who came up with the idea of building a pub, for which Watney’s put up 50 per cent of the capital.

The pub sat on the corner of the Rue de Presbourg and the Avenue d’Iéna, near the Arc de Triomphe. It was designed by a Russian, Vyacheslav Vasiliev, AKA ‘Slavik’, who said: ‘It is not a real pub — only a parody of the French bourgeoisie.’ (‘In an Alien Culture’, A Monthly Bulletin, June 1966.)

From the outside, it certainly looked like a Watney’s pub with the familiar Design Research Unit branding, as shown in the photo above. In the Red Barrel in-house magazine for April 1966, there was a short article about its November 1965 opening:

The bars, with their oil lamps and red plush seats are as unmistakably English as the Victorian exterior, and the name… Sir Patrick Reilly, British Ambassador, [opened] the Sir Winston Churchill by drawing the first pint of Red Barrel.

By 1968, Watney’s chairman, D.P. Crossman, was boasting in the company report (Financial Times, 04/01, p.6) that the Churchill was ‘without doubt the most famous pub on the continent’, and that Watney’s beers were ‘selling well’ at similar pubs in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Munich, with Florence in the pipeline.

When in the same report he added that ‘Outside this country the image of the public house has never stood in higher esteem’, he was taking a dig at the government and their ongoing threat to interfere in or even abolish the tied-house system. Exporting the concept of the English pub abroad, opening up new markets for (easy-to-transport kegged and bottled) British beer, was seen as a vital insurance policy. It lay behind numerous instances of what we would now call ‘pop up’ pubs at trade fairs across Europe and around the world, beginning with the Britannia in Brussels in 1958.

A report in the Financial Times (08/02/71, p.14) summarised the extent of the British invasion by the beginning of the next decade:

This afternoon Bass opens its seventh pub in Sweden — the Francis Drake at Uppsala… All the major British brewers are now on the Continent. Allied has its Double Diamond houses in Rotterdam and Brussels, Courage’s golden cockerel swings over the Cockney Tavern and the Pill Box in Paris as well as other pubs in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Whitbread has 17 houses in Paris and, of course, Watney Mann is probably the daddy of them all… In Paris the red barrel hangs over The Clipper, The Sir Winston Churchill, The Golden Hat, The Mayflower, The Ten Gallons (opened only last month under the famous Olympia Music Hall), the Red Lion and the London Tavern. In Bordeaux there is The Drug Store. At La Baule… it has The Kent Arms. And in Northern France the Queen Victoria rules over Lille. Watney has another 25 pubs Belgium, 12 in Germany, five in Italy and one each in Sweden and Switzerland.

The same article also explained that the whole enterprise relied on marketing British beer as a high-quality premium product for connoisseurs, and jacking up the price accordingly:

In the more sophisticated city centres, with their cosmopolitan populations, the cachet of drinking bitter seems to have had some success, particularly in Paris where there is a distinct preference for top-class beers.

A pint of brown ale at the Winston Churchill cost 6s 6d in 1965, according to a writer in the Guardian (01/12/65, p.11) which, as far as we can tell, is about three times the going rate at home.

Charrington advert: The Pickwick, Geneva.
Detail from a Bass Charrington advertisement, 1973.

Even so, the author of the FT piece concluded, most such pubs were not generally profitable and were really exercises in ‘flag-waving’, and intended to hold territory in advance of Britain’s entry into the Common Market when the real fun could begin.

With the demise of the Big Six and their tied pub estates in the UK, their Continental pub chains also seem to have fallen apart, though it’s hard to say for sure as it happened slowly and apparently wasn’t considered newsworthy. Certainly most of those listed above seem to have disappeared or been renamed. We could not find the Kent Arms in La Baule, for example, although there is a pub called The Salisbury which, despite its name and distinctly English design, calls itself a ‘pub Irlandais’ — how many Whitbread and Watney’s pubs reinvented themselves in this way, with a pot of green paint, and a Guinness font where the keg bitter used to be? We’d guess this Irish pub on Rue Lincoln, Paris, is what remains of Whitbread’s King George.

There are still plenty of faux-English pubs — Charles Wells of Bedford has a decent French pub estate, for example — though it our impression that they aren’t as trendy as in 1970, and we’ve certainly seen some tatty-looking examples on our travels.

Much to our surprise, unlike most of the trendily-designed new-build pubs trumpeted in the Red Barrel in the mid-1960s, the original — The Sir Winston  — is still there proudly declaring itself ‘Un des plus vieux pubs anglais de Paris‘. We’ll have to pay homage next time we pass through.

The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

This piece is 11,000 words long so you might want to consider downloading it to read on your tablet or smartphone via Pocket, Instapaper or another offline reader. It is also available as a free e-book in various formats via Smashwords.

Contents

  • Introduction
  • A London Particular – why everyone is talking about ‘murky’ beer
  • I Can I Can’t? – the reinvention of the tinny
  • Crowds & Community – crowdfunding: exploitation or fan service?
  • On the Turn – signs of tension
  • Vertical Integration – breweries with bars, bars with breweries
  • Almost Too Wee – the rise of the micropub
  • Sorry, Ronnie! – craft beer on the high street
  • Breaking Away from the Peloton – United Craft Brewers
  • Perestroika & Glasnost – CAMRA hints at change
  • Poochie is One Outrageous Dude! – the big boys do craft beer
  • Approaching Total Beer – an afterword
  • Appendix – Where Are They Now?
  • Acknowledgements

New section.

Introduction

We submitted the text of our book, Brew Britannia: the strange rebirth of British beer, in October 2013 and it was published in June the following year. Because the ‘strange rebirth’ it described was still underway, it wasn’t possible to provide a satisfying full stop to our attempt to tell the story of how British beer got from Big Six monopoly of the early 1970s to the vibrant scene we currently enjoy. The purpose of this update is to summarise developments in the past 18 months, to explain how (if at all) they fit into the ongoing narrative, and perhaps also to see if a punchline might be in sight.

In doing so, we have considered the ongoing creep of ‘craft beer’ into the mainstream – or is it the mainstream annexing and absorbing ‘craft’? We have also identified points of stress and increasing tension in an industry in which there is a decreasing amount of elbow room.

Like the last couple of chapters of Brew Britannia, this is commentary rather than history. It is in many ways a greater challenge to squeeze the truth out of people who are running active businesses than it was to get 40-year-old gossip out of CAMRA veterans of pensionable age. Nonetheless, as with the book, we have tried where possible to track stories back to their sources, to pin down dates on the timeline, and to avoid making assumptions – ‘Sez who?’ has been our constant challenge to each other. In a handful of instances, however, the only answer has been, ‘Sez us’.

Continue reading The Good, the Bad & the Murky — Brew Britannia: One Year On

Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.

It is a fairly short essay which first appeared in Visual References: An International Journal of Documentation in November 2012 and is readily available to anyone with access to an academic library. (We managed to see a copy through a more roundabout route.)

There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:

The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.

That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.

The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:

Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.

We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.

Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?