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. Though peo­ple down here have few good things to say about the Devenish brew­ery in Redruth…

        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. Food is on the same path as folk music. I hear Eliz­a­beth David’s rejec­tion of the gar­lic press was an actu­al prece­dent used by CAMRA in its for­mu­la­tion of ear­ly pol­i­cy.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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.”

  17. 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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