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.

QUICK ONE: Turning Casuals into Regulars

Detail: a 1970s pub table.

If someone comes into your pub twice you’re missing a trick if you don’t say hello.

We were hanging out with Bailey’s parents recently when his mum told us this story about their pub-going in the 1970s:

The second time we went into The Cobblestones the landlady came over and said, ‘Right, if you’re going to be coming in regularly, I ought to know your names.’ Then a few months later she said, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and gave Dad a pint glass with a euchre hand on it, and Grandpa a glass with cherries on, because he liked the fruit machines. We drank in there for years.

This seems like such a simple, effective, emotionally manipulative approach. If you see the same face twice, make a formal introduction, and then use those names at every opportunity. Then after, say, three months of regular custom ask if they’d like a loyalty card, or a glass behind the bar, or make some other small gesture — ‘That one’s on the house.’

Lock them into the relationship, like the free sandwich thing at Pret a Manger.

In practice, there are probably all sorts of reasons this doesn’t happen so often these days, not least the fact that it feels ever rarer to actually find the licensee behind the bar. We often ask (because we want permission to take photos or need to ask some questions for one Thing or another) ‘Is this your place, then?’ and we can’t think of many occasions when the answer has been anything other than, ‘No, I’m just the manager.’

In big chains, though, Creating Regulars could be built into staff objectives and the performance management programme… Aaaaaaaaand we’ve depressed ourselves.

Old Pubs on New Estates in the 1970s

Knuckle Sandwich: Growing Up in the Working-class City is a study of the lives of Ordinary People and so of course features a pub or two.

It was written by David Robins and Philip Cohen and published by Penguin in 1978. The fantastic period cover design is by Red Saunders. The back blurb includes a quotation from ‘What’s My Name’ by The Clash and there’s plenty inside to interest students of youth culture, London life, and the polarised politics of the 1970s. As usual in this kind of book all the names are changed, including those of the estate itself, and the pubs. It’s possible some dates and other details were also adjusted to make it harder to pin down.

The overarching narrative concerns a particular pub which the authors call The Black Horse:

Monmouth estate is a ‘new’ GLC estate: it was first occupied in 1960 and is still (1977) incomplete… In the middle of the estate, as if stranded by the tide of ‘progress’, stood the old public-house, the Black Horse. A solid-looking building, with a large ground floor for business, a huge cellar, and two upper floors which had served as living quarters. The pub was scheduled for demolition, like so much else in the neighbourhood, and there were vague GLC promises of a community centre being built there in a few years’ time.

The cover of Knuckle Sandwich, 1978

What happened next was that local youths, with the guidance of radical youth workers, decided to take over The Black Horse and make it an unofficial community centre instead. With the backing of a local tenants’ association, the Open Space Committee, squatters moved in upstairs ‘quietly and efficiently’, acting as caretakers. Before this it was used to stash stolen goods and as a hideout for teenage gangs, so people generally found this an improvement.

The estate’s other pub, called here The Cross Keys, was across the road from The Black Horse. Here’s how Robins and Cohen describe it:

The Cross Keys was the recognized headquarters of the local villains, the fraternity of scrap men, fences, shotgun merchants — another reason why the [Open Space] Committee would not go into it. (It offended their code of moral respectability — not one that was forged out of any deference to middle-class decency, however; it was more that they had a position to keep up.) He fact that the Cross Keys was often the quietest pub in the neighbourhood, and the brewers had withdrawn their franchise on the place, made some tenants suspect that the landlord must be involved in some close working relationship with his customers. Ironically, the local villains had an interest in the Black Horse… It was well-known they were after the lead and timbers contained in the old building. This was one of the main reasons why the committee had backed the squat, to prevent the roof mysteriously disappearing one night.

Near The Cross Keys was a dosshouse for old men and Irish labourers, the so-called ‘Gallagher lads’ who frequented the public bar of the Cross Keys:

By all accounts, Gallagher ran a tight racket and exploited his clients for whatever he could get out of them. He had made a considerable fortune in this rough trade. The area surrounding the Black Horse was considered dangerous largely because of his these lads’ presence. Before it closed the Black Horse had been their main drinking place. Unlike the Cross Keys it had been rough inside. A few weeks before closure, the public bar had been the scene of a stand-up fight between the Irish lads and some black workers living in the vicinity. The reputation of the Black Horse as a dangerous and undesirable place to go remained with it to some degree after it closed for business and opened for the community.

Map from Knuckle Sandwich.

Over the course of the book we learn that the downstairs of The Black Horse was converted into a disco but then, with rumours of sex and drug use among the teenagers, tensions arose and the estate elders withdrew their support. The pub was then systematically wrecked and then burned down in what the authors describe as a ‘professional job’:

Three men had been seen entering the place — with a key — shortly before the wrecking was discovered. They, if it was they, had worked quietly, professionally, unemotionally. Who were they? One is tempted to say simply the self-appointed executioners of the sentence of this community on the ‘notorious’ old pub…

This all seems very interesting in the context of the 2010s and the rise of social-enterprise community pubs. These days such an attempt at revitalisation would never involve squatters and teenagers and the pub would probably remain a pub even if it did gain peripheral functions as well.

One question to which we can’t easily find an answer is where The Black Horse really was, or what it was really called. Based on the map in the book we reckon the Monmouth Estate is actually the Bemerton Estate, off the Caledonian Road. Assuming the pubs are placed somewhat accurately that means The Black Horse was probably really The Pembroke Castle which people seem to recall as being demolished c.1972-3 — perhaps actually when it was boarded up? Or maybe Robins and Cohen obfuscated the dates a bit, too. And the Cross Keys must surely have been — this is a weird name — The Cobbled Fighter.

Or maybe not. If you know for sure one way or another — perhaps you grew up round there, or have access to local newspapers from the period — do drop us a line or comment below.

UPDATE 11:30 24/04/2017: Ewan of Pubology fame has looked at some maps and reckons The Cross Keys must have been The Independent on its original site. The Cobbled Fighter is a bit of a mystery, picked up via Pubs Galore, but might have been a short-lived name for the same premises.

UPDATE 15:20 24/04/2017: Cobbled Fighter link changed from defunct pubology.co.uk page to pubsgalore.co.uk

Only a Northern Brewer

David Pollard, 1977.

This is the story of a first-wave British microbrewery that came and went, and of which little is remembered more than 40 years on: Pollard’s of Stockport, in Greater Manchester.

A handful of small new breweries opened in the early 1970s, and the Campaign for Real Ale had come into existence, but it was only after 1975 that a kind of chain reaction seems to have been triggered. CAMRA membership kept climbing, hitting 30,000 by March that year, and specialist pubs sprouting across the country to cater for ‘the real ale craze’. New brewers began to appear in ever greater numbers, too, and among the original set was Pollard’s of Reddish Vale in Stockport, run by a towering man with a drooping moustache and thick sideburns – David Pollard.

Pollard left school and went straight into the brewing trade in 1950, working alongside his father, George, as an apprentice at Robinson’s in Stockport. He went on thereafter to take jobs at various breweries across England, finding himself repeatedly shunted on as, one by one, they fell to the takeover mania of the Big Six. He became increasingly angry and frustrated, as expressed in a 1975 article in the Observer:

The accountants and engineers had started running things. All the big firms wanted were pasteurised, carbonated beers with no taste or character.

In around 1968 he started his own business – a small shop selling home brewing equipment and ingredients, on Hillgate in Stockport. Until 1963 home brewing had needed a license but when Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudlin removed that requirement, a small boom commenced. Newspapers and magazines were filled with recipes and how-to guides, and Boots the Chemist began to sell brewing kits to a new band of enthusiasts. Amidst all that excitement, Pollard’s shop was a success, and soon moved to larger premises on nearby Buxton Road.

Therapeutic as home brewing might have been for him, however, what he really wanted to be doing was making beer for sale in pubs and clubs. Buoyed by the rise of CAMRA, and perhaps aware of the recent small brewery openings in Litchborough and Selby, he bought £5,000 worth of new brewing equipment, and invested a further £5,000 in premises and ingredients. The site he chose, largely because it was cheap and the water was good, was a small unit in the recently-opened Reddish Vale Industrial Estate in the countryside south of Manchester, where the low, red-brick buildings of a substantial 19th Century printing plant had been converted into workshops.

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Pub Design Advice from c.1968

Chris Bates worked as an interior designer for Allied Breweries (Ind Coope/Ansell’s/Tetley) between 1968 and 1970 and recently rediscovered a handbook he was given on joining the company. He kindly sent it to us to have a look at.

Before we arrange to have it added to the collection at the National Brewing Library at Oxford Brookes, where we previously dispatched The Kegronomicon, we thought we’d share some details from it here.

No author is mentioned but, based on the style and the typography, we briefly wondered if it might have been put together by the Architectural Press off the back of Inside the PubThen we recalled this bit from Ben Davis’s 1981 book The Traditional English Pub (also published by the Architectural Press):

At Ind Coope and Allsopps in Burton-upon-Trent during the early 1950s there was a group of architects whose good fortune it was to work under Neville G. Thompson as Technical Director and Carl Fairless (later Jim Witham) as Chief Architect… [Inside the Pub] became a ‘bible’ for them and their colleagues in London, Oxford, Cardiff, Burslem, and Leeds.

So we’d guess — and it is a guess, but we’ll keep nosing about — that this pamphlet is actually the product of the Ind Coope in-house team synthesising what they’d learned from Maurice Gorham et al and imitating their style.

The booklet is only 32 pages, with no pictures, and fairly sparse text, much of it comprising checklists and notes on surface materials, lighting and so on. What follows is, in our view, the most interesting stuff.

1. Distinctions Between Bars

Page 4: Distinctions Between Bars.
This section stands out in the context of the criticism directed at breweries by the early pub preservationists and other critics. The suggestion back then was that the brewers simply loved ripping out old features to replace them with characterless modern ones, the bastards. This passage rather suggests the opposite, although perhaps that final get out clause is actually the important bit, overriding everything else. Or maybe it’s that this guidance was written in the 1950s and, by the 1970s, this kind of thinking was on the way out.

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