Guinness in London, 1965

Which London pub was the best place for a pint of Guinness in London in the 1960s? None of them, really, according to Gerard Fay.

His article ‘My Goodness…’ collected in The Compleat Imbiber Vol. 8, published in 1965 and edited by Cyril Ray, is another source of information on a subject we’ve been circling round and prodding at for a couple of years now: Irish pubs before ‘Irish Pubs’ and the high status of Guinness before Guinness®. There have been a few blog posts here, a substantial article at All About Beer, and there’s also a bit on this in the upcoming book, 20th Century Pub. (Although we cut a lot from that section in the final edit.) But it’s always good to have new nuggets of information.

Fay was London editor of the Guardian until 1966 and died in 1969 at the age of 55. Their obituary for him is weirdly vague about his origins (‘of Irish stock with strong Lancashire connections’) but he seems to have spent most of his childhood in Dublin and certainly described himself as a ‘Dublin boy’. As a Fleet Street diehard he worked in the vicinity of some of the best-known Irish pubs in London and here’s what he had to say about them:

There were once three Mooneys near each other in London — Holborn, Fleet Street and, to fortify the walker’s spirits between the two, Fetter Lane. Before the coming of Formica the Fleet Street one was distinguished by being more like a genuine Dublin pub than anything left in the City of Dublin itself — neither Fetter Lane nor Holborn was of the right shape. The argument often raged about which of the three produced the best pint of Guinness, and the verdict usually went to Fetter lane because of some virtue in the cellarage. To a coarse palate the Fetter Lane pint seemed as smooth as any drawn in any Dublin pub chosen by serious-minded drinkers as a ‘good house for a pint’. Visiting Dubliners denied this and would have none of the English blarney about Park Royal brewery being the equal of St James’s Gate.

Tipperary back bar.

Once again, there’s a suggestion of mysticism and magic around Guinness, and especially the stuff from Dublin rather than the London-brewed (Park Royal) product. Fifty years on this kind of thing is still heard even though the time when Guinness was anything other than a standardised product was in the process of passing even as Fay was writing:

As Guinness is beer, it is subject to all the complications of cellerage and of being properly kept — though the introduction of metal casks has done away with a lot of this… [The] argument is seldom heard now — the Holborn Mooney’s closed when the lease expired: the others both use metal containers and continue to sell their large and increasing quota.

The Fetter Lane Mooney’s, AKA The Shamrock AKA The Magpie & Stump, is long gone but the Fleet Street branch — The Tipperary — is still there. When we visited a couple of years ago we rather liked it. It looks like a tourist trap but, with veteran Irish staff and mostly Irish customers, didn’t feel like one, and is rather gorgeously decorated, having reverted to something like its pre-Formica look. It’s at least worth sticking your nose in the door next time you pass, even if Guinness isn’t quite the draw it used to be.

Clubs: Shadow Pubs

Clubs, or working men’s clubs as they have historically been known, are all but invisible to many pub-goers but once you tune into them it can be like discovering a whole new town.

The best and snappiest history of the development of clubs can be found in Ruth Cherrington’s 2012 book Not Just Beer and Bingo (£3.49 for Kindle via Amazon):

Working men in the late 19th century wanted their own clubs and members of the upper class thought that these would be better places than pubs. Clubs fitted into the perspective of the rational recreation movement that aimed at halting a perceived moral decline in society…

After much debate, however, clubs did win the right to serve alcohol from the central organising committee and in the 20th century their character changed:

[If] the club bought in the beer, it could supply it to members without the need to make a profit, so prices could be lower than in the pubs. This gave clubs a reputation for providing subsidised drink. The downside of this was that clubs came to be viewed only in this light with their other services and features overlooked.

Clubs thrived as industry thrived, serving individual factories, local trades such as the railways, or particular political groups and parties — Liberal, Labour and Conservative clubs. With two world wars, several smaller ones and national service until 1963, clubs allied to individual branches of the armed services also became common.

Which brings us to 2017 and our recent efforts to visit clubs in and around Penzance which kicked off at our local, The Farmer’s Arms. We were sat in our usual place, at the corner in the back, when we noticed a bloke at the next table, with his partner and some friends, trying to get our attention.

‘Alright. Ever go to the Legion, do you? You should come down sometime.’

Continue reading “Clubs: Shadow Pubs”

A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This story leapt out at us from the pages of a new acquisition for our library, Good Company: the story of Scottish & Newcastle, written by Berry Ritchie and published in 1999. As is the case with many brewery official histories the most interesting stuff isn’t the wigs and genealogy in the opening chapters, it’s the material on the post-WWII period. That’s because there were people around who remembered the events well but at the same time were no longer obliged to toe a corporate line because they were retired; and plenty of surviving paperwork, too. This passage, covering a vague period from around 1970 until the middle of the decade, seems remarkably frank:

Unfortunately, the popularity of Tartan turned out to be less than robust. Compared to English bitters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board member Tim] Lewis had appealed so successfully liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more traditional southern bitters. The big swallowers in the Midlands were never keen; Scottish & Newcastle’s salesmen made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large working-men’s clubs  in and around Birmingham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales resulted in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their contents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edinburgh, because that was where Customs and Excise checked they were were bad enough to warrant a refund of duty. If not, the rejected beer had to be reblended, which did nothing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tartan had to be recycled that it began to affect the reputation of the group’s premium beers.

Isn’t it amazing that this, which reads like CAMRA propaganda, is from a brewery sponsored publication? It’s funny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a standard criticism of cask ale, and mild in particular, when in fact the supposedly clean, space-age keg bitter was subject to just the same commercial pressures.

When people talk about the dangerous influence of ‘accountants’ on the quality of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could presumably have just written off the duty payments and thrown the bad beer away. The decision to do otherwise seems remarkably short-termist but perhaps — very likely, in fact — at these volumes, on tight margins, the choice was between this or going immediately bust, or being taken over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing doesn’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet higher than the 1970s we wouldn’t be surprised to find some 21st Century variant in play.

Funnily enough, Ron Pattinson has just posted about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this period with reference to some archive paperwork. That makes us wonder if perhaps, rather than being mixed with itself, the comparatively light, bland Tartan was hidden in the folds of dark, even sweeter stout and brown ale where it would be harder to spot.

It’s also interesting, by the way, to see further confirmation of the idea that Midlands drinkers in particular were considered to have different tastes, as did young and older drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New England IPAs.

Ale in Dublin: Mit Schuss?

‘Vanilla is a Bean’ by Christian Newton, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

The Dubliners who took to ale showed what seemed a clear contempt for the stuff by sprinkling fruit cordial into it — a row of cordial shakers stood on every bar and the choice included raspberry.

That’s a claim made by ‘Dublin boy’ Gerard Fay in a 1965 article about Guinness called ‘My Goodness…’ and included in The Complete Imbiber Vol. 8 edited by Cyril Ray.

This is the first we’ve ever heard of this practice and it sounds very… Un-Irish.

Can anyone confirm or deny? And is anyone else up for giving it a go?

The Original Beer Podcast, 1975

If you tuned the radio to BBC Leeds at 18:45 on a Wednesday in 1985 you’d hear What’s Brewing, a programme dedicated to beer and pubs.

It was established during the height of real ale mania, in 1975, by a local journalist and CAMRA activist, Barrie Pepper, who worked in the newsroom at Radio Leeds and would go on to become a well-known beer writer. In a later retrospective in the CAMRA newspaper, also called What’s Brewing, for March 1985, he recalled its origins:

[The radio show] made its first appearance… after pressure from members of the Leeds branch of CAMRA. In that programme, though to be a one-off, Tom Fincham and I made the first of our ‘rural rides’ in search of good ale, we defined real ale and Eddie Lawler sang his now famous ‘We’re all here for the real thing’.

‘Famous’ might be overstating it but Eddie Lawler told us in an email that he has performed the song at the CAMRA AGM. He was kind enough to share the version he recorded under the title ‘CAMRAnthem’ for his 2007 album The Baildon Sky Rocket with 1970s references to ‘big-busted barmaids’ and the ‘nattering spouse’ removed. As you might guess, it’s a folky pub singalong with a piano backing:

We’re all here for the Real Thing.
That’s why we’re singing this song, just to show all those
Fancy TV promotions
That the customer’s not always wrong, so you’d better not
Give us pale imitations
Or gas us with chemical beer.
So just give us a pint of the Real Thing landlord
’Cos that’s why we’re bloody well here.

Off the back of that first programme the producer, David Campbell, commissioned a year’s-worth of monthly programmes. In his 1985 retrospective Barrie Pepper described the difficulty in finding topics for discussion and, in particular, the challenge of finding a Pub of the Month every month. (The first was The Greyhound at Saxton.)

1970s portrait photograph, candid and grainy.
Barrie Pepper.

There was also a ‘real ale soap opera’ called Tap Room Tales written by Gerry Garside from Bradford which was representative of the ribald, pantomime humour that characterised early CAMRA culture. There’s an extract from the first episode, broadcast in August 1977, in Barrie Pepper’s 1990 anthology of beer writing The Bedside Book of Beer:

Episode one — the Price of a Pint

The scene is the tap room of The Plastered Parrot, a real ale pub in a working suburb of a West Riding town. The time is half an hour before closing time on a weekday evening.

Let me introduce you to the cast.

Nora Nockers is an occasional barmaid; Yorkie Bale is a retired shoddy merchant, Shufflem Round is the pub domino captain and Barum Hall is the landlord. Charlie Chock, Gordon Spile, Andrew Mallet and Peter Barrel are members of the Campaign for Real Ale. Girlington Gertie is an aging ex-chorus girl and we present Lars Torders, a Swedish Steel worker.

In his 1985 retrospective Barrie admitted that Tap Room Tales ‘might have seemed a bit facile… but it had a serious purpose and was great fun to take part in’.

From 1980 What’s Brewing went weekly and Barrie took over as producer with Mike Greenwood hosting. There was homebrew advice from Bob Blagboro, profiles of Yorkshire breweries, and campaigns against pub closures. ‘[In] the case of the Spring Close Tavern in East Leeds we were able to secure the reprieve by Leeds City Council live on our microphone,’ Barrie recalled in 1985.

Though Barrie insisted the show was independent of CAMRA he was at various points on the Campaign’s National Executive and it certainly seems to have given the local branch what amounted to a mouthpiece funded by the licence payer.

The last episode was broadcast in June 1986 for reasons Barrie explained in an email:

I moved on from the news room at BBC Radio Leeds to become Head of Press and Public Relations with Leeds City council. Ray Beaty, the station manager, wasn’t keen on a non-staffer producing — he didn’t mind a freelance (unpaid) presenter but worried about someone ‘speaking out of turn’ as he called it. In any case I couldn’t find anyone to do the job and the council wouldn’t allow me to do it.

So, that was that.

Thirty-odd years on, though BBC radio only touches on beer occasionally, in the current podcast boom there’s no shortage of beer-related audio. For example, we recently listened to Fermentation Radio for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll send Barrie Pepper the link.

Main image incorporates elements of ‘Philips Radio from the 1970s’ by David Martyn Hunt under Creative Commons via Flickr.