Pubs are one thing, beer another

Detail from the cover of Len Deighton's London Dossier, 1967.

Books about pubs from the pre-CAMRA era rarely give beer more than a passing mention.

Richard Keverne’s Tales of Old Inns (1939; rev. 1951) is really about architecture, and inns are not necessarily pubs, but, still, it seems odd that not once (as far as we have been able to see) is beer mentioned in its 160 pages.

Hunter Davies The New London Spy (1966) covers pubs at length, but with an emphasis on atmosphere, decor and food. It includes only one comment on beer:

The amazing thing about the popularity of the French [the York Minster, Dean Street], is its badness as a pub qua pub. There are no pint glasses, for instance, and your unsuspecting customer asking for a pint is simply served with a half, without explanation, and you can only get Watney’s Red Barrel in the way of beer.

The chapter on ‘Drink’ by Adrian Bailey in Len Deighton’s London Dossier (1967) offers a lengthy passage on the wonders of bitter and beer ‘from the wood’ but, when it comes to recommending pubs, beer doesn’t seem to be a particular draw. The Olde Wine Shades is listed because of its ‘Rich ruby port and thin, pale sherry, burgundies and clarets’; the Admiral Codrington in Mossop Street, Chelsea, ‘keeps more than a hundred different whiskies’; while the Chelsea Potter in the King’s Road has ‘the largest variety of aperitifs and spirits in London’. The greatest development of recent times, the author explains, is the availability in pubs of wine by the glass, in defiance of brewers who would ‘rather have them sell beer’.

Martin Green and Tony White, in their Guide to London Pubs (1968) mention beer but their listings for pubs (from the few we’ve been able to see here — still hunting a copy of our own) suggest that music, atmosphere and novelty value (Go Go cages!) are far more important considerations.

We suspect it is only with the arrival on the scene of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in the 1970s that we began to see the popularisation of the idea that a pub can only really be great  if it has great beer.

This is yet more thinking aloud from us. Feel free to disagree as you would in a pub debate, while sipping your aperitif, glass of wine or whisky.

43 thoughts on “Pubs are one thing, beer another”

  1. I think there was always an awareness amongst ordinary beer drinkers. Writers on the other hand may just have written what they wanted from their perspective. They picked a subject and went about it in an old fashioned middle class way it seems. I have a book somewhere called Kingsley Amis on Drink. I don’t think he mentions beer once either. So don’t be misled.

    CAMRA raised visibility but it was always there. People then chisel pubs in a beer basis too according to my anecdotal research.

  2. Having great beer is clearly a necessary condition for a pub to be considered great. If the GBG directly popularised that idea, then we should be thankful. But I’m less convinced by what seems to be the current GBG editorial policy, namely that having great beer is now deemed a sufficient condition for pub greatness.

  3. I have to disagree with the idea that this was “an old fashioned middle class perspective” as it was nothing more than the same rejection that CAMRA took in another direction. Go watch one of those dreary black and white films from the 50s and 60s and you see the post-war Britain that my folks and so many of their cousins fled. Pubs were grim as often as not and beer was crap. No golden era then. Why write about that? If a variety of flavour was becoming more and more available in wines and spirits and Bondian cocktails that is maybe a middle class perspective but a new one.

    1. Was it that the beer was intrinsically crap, or that it was poorly kept? The view of CAMRA (with which I would agree) is that most of the independent brewers’ cask beers that survived into the 1970s, and a fair proportion of those brewed by the “Big Six” were actually distinctive, quality products. The small family brewers who genuinely did produce poor beer had been pretty much entirely wiped out by then.

        1. Yes, some didn’t have much of a reputation, but I’d stand by the claim that most were fairly highly thought of. Wasn’t Devenish originally a Weymouth company that bought out another brewery in Cornwall?

          In the 70s and 80s St Austell Brewery certainly had a much better reputation than Devenish.

          1. As Tandleman suggests, there was a huge amount of word-of-mouth and grapevine information about which beers were better than others, even if little was committed to print. And I’m sure any experienced 60s drinker would have no trouble in telling bad cellarmanship apart from corner-cutting brewing.

          2. So, the entire need for CAMRA was a bit silly as any experienced 60s drinker would have no trouble in telling bad cellarmanship apart from corner-cutting brewing? And these books that pre-date CAMRA were wilfully blind for not appreciating the

            Far more likely that the majority of beer drinkers in the 1960s did as they in fact did – buy the dull crap that was being served them.

  4. “Beer was crap”. Evidence? I don’t claim a golden era and we aren’t talking about the day the war ended, but it most certainly was not all crap. I have spoken to many an old codger about beer and while they disliked certain breweries (and that is my point), nobody says all the beer was crap. In fact they sought out specific breweries’ pubs to the exclusion of others.

    My point about middle- class writing is a perfectly reasonable argument to advance and does explain to some extent at least, why it wasn’t mentioned in the books, not even in the context of your “new” drinks. In other words it wasn’t written by those that went to the pub to drink beer.

    B&B I think, though talking historically, mentioned in one case at least, 1966. I doubt anyway that your family fled Britain for Canada because the beer was dodgy. If they did, they went to the wrong place. 🙂

    1. With respect, your supplied evidence weighed against all of pop culture is based on the old codgers you have spoken to who, with respect, are likely fellow travellers, no? The evidence is in the literature being discussed. Beer was a non-item. An ex-parrot. Labelling what you do not care for as “middle class” is pre-judging. Consider the trends and change in the 60s and how it actually lays the ground for CAMRA rather than being antithetical. Add into that the Amateur Winemaker phenomena of the 60s, too, and you have it. Bailey says below “aspirational” and that hits the nail on the head for the times more broadly. Beer toddles along in line ten years later, that’s all.

      1. Initially, CAMRA was primarily a “preservationist” movement, not a “connoisseurship” movement. It had much closer connections to heritage steam railways than Elizabeth David and Hugh Johnson. The “beer connoisseur” aspect came much later, realistically not until well into the 1980s.

          1. My reading of Richard Boston – specifically, my reading of his columns in the Graun – was what got me into CAMRA in the first place, and I saw it very much as a “preservationist” movement. But I think there was some degree of overlap with the Elizabeth David world-view, in that what was being preserved was seen as something old and genuine, uncontaminated by progress.

          2. See, that is a great word and I think you caught that connection – what is genuine. Fits with all the other movements of the era, too, even if not as successful as CAMRA.

  5. A thought is developing from this: working people turned away from mild and bitter in favour of aspirational drinks such as wine, lager and spirits (once an occasional treat). That left ‘ale’ and the ‘traditional’ pubs it was consumed in free to become the focus of a middle class hobby.

    Or, to put that another way, beer went from being something you drank to something you wrote about.

      1. I think that’s a slight generalisation. In those areas which still have a good representation of family brewer tied houses then I think that cask ale remains very much an everyday drink – take the Armoury in Stockport – I doubt many of the customers there would consider themselves middle class. Even more so the New Victoria in Longsight.

        However it is certainly true that the customers of multi-beer freehouses (not to mention “craft beer bars”) are pretty middle class on the whole.

        1. As the barmaid at the Volunteer in Sale said to me when I asked after the (Holt’s) IPA, “in here we mostly get bitter and mild drinkers”. I doubt that many of Joey’s clientele would call themselves middle class.

        2. Yes, I make that exception in the post. Around here, our four local family brewers plus Sam Smith’s do still have a strong contingent of traditional customers who drink cask beer. There are other similar pockets around the country, such as Banks’s Moild drinkers in the West Midlands. But I don’t think it’s really typical of the country as a whole.

  6. Good essay on the Beerage by David Jenkins in 1969’s Pub A Celebration, brought together by Angus McGill, talks to McMullens and Robinsons as well as the Watneys etc.
    The 1960s Batsford guides to pubs (London, Sussex, East Anglia etc) mention regular beers and then ‘special’ beers.
    RE; French House, they were still doing half pints in the 1980s, rather warm Carlsberg I seem to remember. Though I didn’t go there for the beer.

  7. I came of legal drinking age in 1972, but members of my family worked for Walker Cain (later Tetley Walker) from the 40s to the 80s. Hand pumps sometimes didn’t have a pump clip, and if they did, it often only stated the brewery name and the words “bitter” or “mild”, rather than a name for the individual beer, as is the norm now. With choice limited solely to the brewer’s own products, people simply avoided the pubs where they didn’t like the beer. Some examples from Liverpool, where I come from: Bents was not well thought of, but sold quite well because it was cheaper. Higsons beers were particularly popular over the other choices in the city, such as Whitbread, Tetleys or Bass beers (Draught Bass being something of an exception).

    Licensees were not generally more sloppy than today, but with cellars without modern air conditioning, ale was often much more susceptible to changes in the weather or adverse conditions in the cellar than now. Barrie Pepper’s memoir of life in a West Yorkshire pub in the 1950s, “The Landlord’s Tale”, makes clear the effort to keep good beer; it’s worth reading anyway for a first-hand view of pub life of that time.

    Let’s leave class out of it, as mentioning it always provokes an overreaction, and say that beer was not the prime interest of those early pub book writers, but then products usually called only “bitter” and “mild” weren’t going to attract the attention of people who preferred fortified wines or spirits anyway. In the 60s, a popular view was that, owing to the variability of cask, keg would eventually take over, so why write about a product that didn’t interest them much anyway, and would die with the generation that clung on to it? It is a mistake to assume that their failure to write about beer was in any way indicative of a general apathy about the product among beer drinkers. I can remember among my elders in the 60s comments about the quality of their beer, and also a firm suspicion that the strength was being reduced.

  8. Right – I’m back home now and first of all an apology to Boak and Bailey. I was trying to keep to the subject when I suggested that there “may” have been a reason of class or otherwise, why those that probably knew most about beer drinking, weren’t the ones writing about it. I could have expanded in response to B&B’s direct wondering about it, by adding that there was probably archaeological, local, historical, anthropological, sociological and other reasons why beer wasn’t much mentioned in some books about pubs. As ATJ has subsequently mentioned there were those that did, so it must have been fairly deliberate.

    As for class, well I reckon most books back then were written from a middle class perspective, but as Neville says, we can safely keep that out of it as it just raises red herrings.

    Now back to Alan – and I apologise again to B&B. When I first came to Liverpool in 1980, I was surprised by the fact that people did go to pubs for reasons of beer type and equally that folks referred to pubs still as Bents, Threlfalls, Birkenhead, or other such breweries houses, even though they were no longer so. Old guys would tell me, as Neville has pointed out, why these were or were not approved of. Beer quality featured highly. And no, I knew little about beer then, was only just a CAMRA member – I joined in spring 1980 and these were folks that had drunk beer for many years and who knew, I’ll bet, nothing about CAMRA – after all it only had about 20,000 members then – maybe less. It is only anecdotal as I already state, but far more informative than Alan’s blanket suggestion that all British beer was “crap.”

    Now it seems to me more than a little condescending to suggest that everybody – and most people did – that went to pubs sat there blithely and unthinkingly drinking crap beer. Neville has mentioned the difficulties before refrigeration – and yes that lack can and does make beer crap – but I also remember an old guy in the pub I worked in in Scotland telling me how they put wet sacks on the barrels to keep the beer cool, presumably because they wanted it to taste better. That would have been in the 40s and 50s. (Lack of refrigeration is still a problem in London if you fancy replicating it for the experience.)

    Lastly Mudgie is right too. Initially, CAMRA was primarily a “preservationist” movement, not a “connoisseurship” movement. The changes of the 60s were quite something else. They were scarcely characterised as conserving the status quo. Alan says “The evidence is in the literature being discussed. Beer was a non-item. An ex-parrot. Labelling what you do not care for as “middle class” is pre-judging. ” No it isn’t. I do care for books written about pubs. I have quite a few at home. I am suggesting though some reasons why some might not have mentioned beer that much if at all. Nothing to with pre judging whatever. I was simply trying to suggest an answer to a question raised by our hosts.

    So back on message:

    “A thought is developing from this: working people turned away from mild and bitter in favour of aspirational drinks such as wine, lager and spirits (once an occasional treat). That left ‘ale’ and the ‘traditional’ pubs it was consumed in free to become the focus of a middle class hobby.”

    Haha. An oversimplification and one that took a long time, but there is merit in the argument I’d say.

    Or, to put that another way, beer went from being something you drank to something you wrote about.

    That is indeed a recent phenomenon.

    and finally:

    “We suspect it is only with the arrival on the scene of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in the 1970s that we began to see the popularisation of the idea that a pub can only really be great if it has great beer.”

    A good case can be made for this suspicion.

  9. Sorry to have set you off. But it is irrelevant to the point. Exchange “crap” for “dull”. Swinging sixties needed no dull. Social rules were being rewritten is the point. Why in God’s earth would anyone defend or even describe the dull which was being dulled by the crap that was weakening keg? Oh, I used that word again. Beer can’t ever be crap. Oh dear. I used it again.

    Beer followed. When you say “beer went from being something you drank to something you wrote about” as another longer way of saying it became worthy aspiration, that is true. But in the UK in the 1960s food and drink generally were being reconsidered at a level that astonishes us with its simplicity. Beer catches up in the early 70s and CAMRA was a large part of that along with Boston’s columns in the Guardian. I will accept that – mainly because I seem to be one of the few mentioning it. Changes to beer culture simply do not live separate from cultural change.

  10. What happened to beer in the 70s, I think, is similar to the development of folk music. (Not my area of special expertise, so excuse any mistakes that follow.)

    1. Actual folk songs that actual folk sing un-self-consciously.
    2. The sad realisation that such folk songs are dying out, at which point they gain a layer of poignancy.
    3. A movement arises to preserve/defend them which is also, in its own way, ‘revolutionary’ (small R) — that is, counter cultural.
    4. Folk music is saved, only it’s no longer sung by ‘folk’ but by afficionados, and is accompanied by semantic debates, literature, festivals, societies, campaigns…

    “Brewing is about the only folk industry left.” Terry Jones, 1978.

    1. I think there is a parallel between the rise of CAMRA and the folk music (and morris dancing) revival. As ‘craft beer’ and ‘slow food’ seem to be part of the same trend.

    2. There’s a lot in that, and of course it leads to

      5. Folk music is effectively redefined as ‘the kind of music folk enthusiasts play’, and consequently starts meaning something different from what it did.
      6. The folk scene acquires its own orthodoxies and shibboleths, which don’t necessarily have anything to do with folk music as it was originally defined.
      6. People declare that they’re the new! young! exciting! folkies and denounce the rest of the folk scene as dull and bland, to general irritation.

      Good job nothing like that could happen in the real ale scene.

  11. Yes, well. Meanwhile back at the ranch -I think if you go on Amazon and pcik up a copy of The Book of Beer by Andrew Campbell (published 1956) you will find something that really does talk a great deal about beers (mainly London based) and where to drink them. It’s also a fascinationg period piece – well worth buying.

  12. Thanks for comments, all.

    John — we’ve got Campbell on our wishlist after you mentioned it the other week. Waiting to see it at a reasonable price, though.

    A general point: I think our point was that none of the books we had at hand made as much mention of beer as we might have expected — we certainly don’t claim to have exhaustively reviewed every book out there published between 1950-1970!

    People were certainly discerning about beer, but (we think — citations needed…) not necessarily critical. They knew what they liked and drank it, without further analysis or discussion. Citing fiction isn’t ideal, but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe has a great exchange in which Arthur Seaton’s mate rejects a pub because he’s ‘never reckoned much to the ale’.

    For what it’s worth, the Beatles were rum and Coke drinkers in the mid-sixties (when they weren’t on LSD-laced coffee) and they seemed to have a pretty good idea of Where It Was At.

    Phil — love your extension of the folk music analogy. Feels like we’re on to something here.

  13. Another thing you may want to try is reading what the same people were writing about subjects other than beer at the time. Richard Boston’s collection of essays “Starkness At Noon” should be easy to lay a hand on.

  14. I’m just sitting in such pub, great place with crap beer. Would it be the same with great collection of craft beer? I guess not, most of locals here drink the same brand since, I don’t know, 25 years, would they want to change their minds and start drinking obscure brands for much higher, premium price? It’s flavour and aroma that makes great beer, but it’s people that makes place a truly great one.

      1. ‘Tis true, I’m the sole prop. of 52 Folk Songs and the veteran of more “what is folk?” threads on Mudcat than I care to remember, mostly arguing against a great friend of mine (who’s an utter arse on that subject); I’m probably only a couple of degrees from Nev in real life. Come to think of it, Nev, didn’t I see Matthew Edwards on your blog? He’s a singaround mate of mine, although we’re not related as far as I know.

        Anyhoo – faulty in what way?

  15. OK, so Campbell says: “In commending public houses to others there are difficulties which need to be realized and accounted for. It is not especially valuable to advise you to go to the Pig and Whistle in Dock Street because the beer is good. The beer is probably ‘Tomnoddy’s’ and the same as is sold in a thousand other public houses, and is in first-class condition in seven hundred of them. So advice is given, the beer and service not being below average, on the basis of some particular quality of the public house. Such qualities are personal things.”

  16. The 1960s Batsford guides to pubs (London, Sussex, East Anglia etc) mention regular beers and then ‘special’ beers.

    Yes, but, interestingly, they list what would still have been cask beers indiscriminately with keg beers and, AFAIR, make no effort to distinguish between them.

    RedNew – I’d say the folk music analogy was pretty damned exact. And I’ve been following folk music since before Camra existed.

    Among drinkers of my father’s generation (and he grew up in West London in the 1930s), Fuller’s had a very poor reputation. My maternal grandfather (North London, pre-First World War) and his mates would travel a long way for a pub serving Bass. I doubt there has ever been a time when pubs haven’t been chosen on the basis of the preceived quality of the beer sold in them.

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