Panic on the Streets of Woking: Rise of the Lager Lout

 This bumper #beerylongreads post is dedicated to the kind folks who have sponsored us via our Patreon page, like Chris France and Jon Urch — thanks!

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

Lager. Lager was to blame. A type of beer that had arrived in earnest in Britain only thirty years before as the upmarket, sophisticated, sharp-suited Continental cousin of the traditional pint of wallop.

Where did it all go wrong?

Skol advertisement, 1960: "British Brewer Goes Continental".
In the Beginning

Lager was first brewed in Britain as far back as the 1830s and had its first boom in popularity, primarily as a hip, high-price imported product, from the 1860s until World War I. (See Gambrinus Waltz for more on that.) For the next 40 years or so it sat in the background, very much a minority interest, represented by imports from the Continent and the occasional attempt by British brewers such as Barclay Perkins. In the 1950s it had a less than 2 per cent share of the total UK beer market.

The 1950s were an unsettling time for British breweries. They could no longer rely on armies of industrial workers tramping to the pub on a regular basis to drink ale in substantial quantities. Young people seemed less interested in pubs and beer and drawn rather more to burger bars, coffee shops, Coca Cola and pop music. Mild was definitely passé – a relic of the slum era – and though sales of bitter were surging, it too lacked glamour. Bitter drinkers wore blazers and smoked pipes. The tiny handful of Lager drinkers, on the other hand…

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Bits We Underlined in… The London Spy, 1971

Cover of the 1971 edition of The London Spy. (Bright red, peering eye.)

This ‘discreet guide to the city’s pleasures’ naturally contains lots of details on pubs and beer, not only in the section on drinking but also scattered throughout.

It was edited by Robert Allen and Quentin Guirdham and was a follow up to a 1966 edition edited by Hunter Davies with the slightly different title of The New London Spy, which we wrote about years ago.

In general, the 1971 edition is more sex-obsessed than the 1966 and, by modern standards, pretty obnoxious in places. There’s an entire chapter advising blokes on how to ‘pull’, for example, which is supposed to be cheeky but now just reads as incredibly creepy. Conning your way into halls of residence for young women and stalking around the corridors harassing anyone you bump into is one particularly sociopathic suggestion. There are fewer contributors than in 1966 but some big names still appear, not least Sir John Betjeman and Bruce Chatwin.

Anyway, let’s dive in.

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PLAYLIST: 20th Century Pub

When we’re writing anything substantial we often find it useful to put together a soundtrack. Here’s the one we made for our new book, 20th Century Pub, which is due back from the printers anytime…. now.

It’s a funny old bunch of songs, some chosen because we like them, others because they evoke a mood or period. We could easily have included 50 songs from the 1920s to the 1940s that we listened to endlessly while working on the earlier portions of the book.

You’ll find the full playlist on Spotify here:

And below there are notes on each track along with YouTube videos where we could find decent ones for those of you averse to Spotify for whatever reason.

The book should be shipping in the next week or so despite an official publication date of 15 September. You can order it via Amazon UK or ask in your local bookshop.

In the meantime, have a listen to the playlist by way of a trailer, perhaps as an accompaniment to The Pubs of Boggleton.

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Old School IPA

Chris Clough’s Tweet, above, prompted us to put into words something that’s been buzzing around our heads for a while: Old School IPA is, and should be, a distinct sub-style.

What Chris was actually getting at, as elaborated upon in subsequent Tweets, is that what would have seemed a proper, unremarkable amount of bitterness in an IPA c.2010 has come to be regarded as high bitterness in this age of soft, sweet, fruit-juice-like beers, and therefore a bit retro.

But, as it happens, we’ve used the term frequently to distinguish a particular type of IPA, of which some other examples are…

  1. Weak, brown, mid-20th-century IPA, e.g. Greene King.
  2. Pale, citrusy 1990s American-inspired IPA, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.
  3. Hazy, sweet, oniony 21st century IPA, e.g. this lot.

These are all legitimate takes with verifiable lineage to the 19th century original, even if it’s hard to see any family resemblance between GK IPA and a Cloudwater DIPA.

India Pale Ale No. 1

But Old School IPA, as we’ve thought of it, is a kind of non-identical twin to the 1990s American style in particular, emerging from the same round of scholarly enthusiasm centred around Roger Protz, Mark Dorber and the White Horse on Parson’s Green. We’ve written about this a few times but here’s a brief account from Mr Protz himself:

Dorber decided to hold a pale ale festival at the pub in 1993 and asked Bass, owners of the White Horse, if they would brew a special IPA for the event. The brewer responded by calling up a retired brewer Tom Dawson who recalled brewing Bass Continental for the Belgian market, based on Burton beers from Victorian times. The 7.2% beer he brewed caused such interest when it was launched at the White Horse that Mark Dorber and me, with the support of the British Guild of Beer Writers, organised a major seminar in 1994 at the Whitbread Brewery in the Barbican. Brewers from both Britain and the United States attended with their interpretations of the style. Among those from the U.S. was Garrett Oliver who went on to become a celebrated brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery where he still produces the East India IPA he brought to the seminar.

What makes an IPA Old School in our view is and emphasis on hop bitterness as well as, and perhaps more than, aroma/flavour; a preference for English hop varieties; mellow orange character rather than pine or grapefruit; and a certain stoical pintability, despite relatively high ABVs by late 20th century cask ale standards.

Victorian IPA might be a good alternative description, and that’s certainly the iconography employed on many of those we’ve come across: Old Empire, Bengal Lancer, Bombay 106, and so on. We tend to enjoy beers like this and would like to see more of them, especially given that everything is IPA now anyway.

We’re not the first to give a personalised breakdown of IPA sub-styles — check out Jeff Alworth’s here, and Mark Dredge’s here.

VIDEO: Advice for Americans on English Pubs, 1943

We were alerted to the presence of this film on YouTube by Anthony Harper (@anthonymharper) and it’s a corker.

It was made as a joint production of the US and UK governments and was intended, in short, to prevent American soldiers acting like dickheads in Britain. The host is Burgess Meredith (BatmanRocky) and he spends the first third of the film — about ten minutes — in an English country pub:

We’re not trying to show you the perfect way to behave in a pub. We’re only trying to point out that some of these people are a little more reserved than some of us. If you take it easy a little bit, just at the beginning… you’ll make some damn good friends.

It’s staged with the interior filmed on a studio set but, as it’s intended to be educational rather than propaganda, we can probably assume it’s a fairly accurate portrayal. In fact, the advice is still good, on the whole:

What’s that? What’s the difference between bitter and mild? I don’t know. One’s bitter and one’s mild. You’d better find out for yourself…