It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stumbled across it looking for contemporary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plenty of other gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for yourself but wanted to put the bit specifically about the state of our beer under the microscope.

First, Mr Seaman makes clear that he found no evidence of British beer being adulterated:

Hop substitutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duodenal ulcers are not there. English ale is probably as clean and as honest as ever it was. But it is unhealthily weak.

Then he says something which counters the romantic view of English session beer:

Ale to be wholesome must be strong. The German- and Bohemian-type beers which America favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their humanizing influences not violently but gradually, and the patient passes through an infinity of pleasurable states before attaining the final, beatific anesthesia. Ale, however, is intended by the Almighty to deliver its message at once. Its appeal is unsubtle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vastly sweetened you and your surroundings. If it is weak, it has soured your stomach and your outlook.

In other words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Another startling statement comes next though perhaps we might write it off as pandering to an American audience:

My present homesickness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the softer, kindlier brews that were later revealed to me—the light American beers of the Pilsner and Munich varieties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy collar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as lovely as their coming up.

Yes, American beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uniformly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoyable than British mild or bitter. He reckons that’s partly because it was cold but points out that British ale doesn’t work when chilled — it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he mentions the availability of Continental lager beers in London, providing further evidence for our argument that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münchener Lowenbrau and Pilsner Urquell, perhaps the noblest brews of their respective orders that are obtainable today, are on tap, in good condition, in certain dispensaries of the West End of London, but their high price, thanks to the tariff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the people.

(Consider the trajectory of lager in the decades that followed and think for a moment about what that might mean — moral panic over Hop Hooligans off their faces on licence-brewed American IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also provides a handy key to the class status of the various styles, as well as some telling tasting notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a London pub, and the barmaid will say, ‘Other side, please,’ jerking her wet thumb in the direction of the public, or four-ale bar; for ale in London is a vulgar word. The middle-classes there drink bitter, a pale, golden beer so sharply hop-flavored that foreigners find it undrinkable. Burton, in London and certain other cities that have come under the Cockney blight, is a generic name for a dark ale of standard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Burton-on-Trent or elsewhere. Its social status is above mild and below bitter; although its price is that of bitter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of similar character is called strong mild. Bitter is unpopular in Scotland; the ale of that country, dark and sparkling as Miinchener, is excellent, and is commonly kept and dispensed at a lower temperature than English ale.

Seaman, being a professional man, drank bitter, of course. There’s another nugget there for those of us tracking the evolution of golden ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appealing. It would be good to find later comments from him — he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would certainly have had chance to try the earliest keg bitters, for example.

Finally, there is this statement which seems to be spoken directly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tunnel:

[The] words can and growler, in the American sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chimney sweep could afford to be seen carrying home the supper beer.

There is a red herring here, which has caught out a couple of people lately: mentions of cans in sources from the 1930s and earlier often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. canisters. That mention of growlers still works though, except that nowadays carrying a takeaway container of draught beer is an almost exclusively gentrified behaviour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The American Mercury ceased to be merely conservative and became ‘virulently anti-Semitic’ so watch where you step if you go wandering off through the archive.

The Flat, Warm Pints of London Town

Illustration: a flat pint.

I didn’t realise I’d missed London’s characteristically headless, lifeless, lukewarm pints of beer until I had one on Friday.

It was brown, weary-tasting, with barely a fleck of scum on the surface, and yet… I kind of loved it.

I’m not saying this kind of thing is good, or that I wouldn’t have preferred something with a bit of condition given the option, but confronted with it in that moment, it resonated with my homesickness like the stink of a hometown factory.*

For many Londoners, perhaps less so now than it used to be, I’m sure this is actually a preference: no space wasted by mere froth, maximum possible booze for your cash. I remember friends from my sixth-form college and Leyton Orient supporting days grumbling if they were served even slightly foamy pints: ‘What’s going on ‘ere — are we up Norf or summink?’

I didn’t say when I Tweeted about it but the pint in question was at the usually very reliable Royal Oak in Borough, our favourite London pub these days. I stayed drinking there with friends until we got booted out so it can’t have been so bad.

But that’ll do me for a while — back to cool, properly conditioned beers with proper heads now, I think.

* Not an abstract example — Bailey grew up under the foul cloud of British Cellophane and gets sentimental when he smells anything similarly disgusting.

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Here are all the blog posts and articles from the past week that have captured our attention in one way or another, from ponderings on the pint to the state of Orval.

Whether you like to drink your beer by the pint or in smaller measures is another of those fault lines between Them and Us in British beer. Chris Hall (who works for London brewery Brew by Numbers) considers whether the fact that the pint is the default UK beer serving is distorting the market:

Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.


The brewhouse at Orval.
SOURCE: Belgian Smaak.

2015 Beer Writer of the Year Breandán Kearney considers the state and history of the brewery at Orval in a luxuriously long post at Belgian Smaak, which also has lots of juicy detail for home brewers and the generally inquisitive:

The malt bill is an evolving one, barley varieties such as ‘Aleksi’ and ‘Prisma’ used previously having been replaced for example with the ‘Sebastian’ variety. ‘It is difficult to speak about varieties of barley malt because a lot of them disappear for new ones,’ says Anne-Françoise [Pypaert]. ‘Brewers don’t have much control on that because farmers value varieties with a good yield. What I can say is that we use two pale malt varieties, one caramel malt and a little bit of black barley.’

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016”

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.

Continue reading “Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s”