Beer history

Hazy Beer in the 1920s

Detail from mild ale label.

Ron Pattinson has recently been sharing tons of data on the quality of mild in the 1920s, including its clarity, as judged by assessors at Whitbread.

As pointed out by one commenter on our post about beer clarity from last week, that can give us an insight into whether hazy beer necessarily tasted better, or was thought to taste better, in the past.

We put Ron’s figures into a spreadsheet (from 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11) and cut them various ways. Here’s what we found:

  1. Beers being rated on a scale of -3 to 2, of the 84 beers rated 1 and 2, some 22 were described as hazy, cloudy or variants thereon.
  2. Of the 60 beers scoring between -1 and -3, some 23 were described as bright or brilliant.
  3. Some beers described as hazy or cloudy were recorded as having ‘poor’ flavour, while others tasted ‘very fair’ or ‘good’.
  4. Beers described as brilliant were generally also found to taste good, though one was ‘poor’ and quite a few others were ‘fair’ (acceptable, with an overall score of 1).

UPDATE 13/2/2014: Ron has clarified in a comment below that the numerical scores are his addition, based on Whitbread’s more-or-less standardised flavour descriptors.

In other words, Whitbread’s tasters didn’t find any particular connection between clarity and flavour.  Hazy beer wasn’t somehow better or more virtuous, but nor was it necessarily bad.

What we’d really like to know is whether customers in the pub would have shown a preference for the beer that looked ‘bright’ but had ‘unpleasant flavour, going off’.

12 replies on “Hazy Beer in the 1920s”

“Hazy beer wasn’t somehow better or more virtuous, but nor was it necessarily bad.”

Not from a professional point of view maybe. They weren’t looking at it from a retail point of view. When you judge SIBA beers there is a score for “Saleability” or some such word. That’s the key in lots of ways,

Nor do we know at what point or where these samples were taken. (Or do we?)

While interesting, I am not sure what the tasters were looking for, nor what criteria they applied in scoring.

I think the question of intrinsic/extrinsic quality is what we’re trying to get our heads round: saleability is about consumer prejudice, which may or may not reflect some underlying truth about the product.

Someone needs to do a blind taste taste on fined/unfined, bright/hazy beer. If anyone has already done so, we’ve missed it.

The samples were taken in pubs, as we understand it, by roving teams of nosy parkers, but Ron might correct us.

It is very difficult to extrapolate from such data, e.g., a beer could
have a “cellar” note (a degraded earthy taste) regardless of whether it is clear, ditto for sourness, infection taste, etc.

It is possible yeasty beer, except perhaps if yeast-bitten – but clear beer can be yeast-bitten too – was regarded as perfectly saleable as Tandleman says yet was disapproved in the pub on account of an excessively yeasty taste.


There’s the odd unusual note, but the majority have in one column, a description of clarity in fairly unambiguous language, and, in the next, a description of flavour along the lines of ‘fair’, ‘good’ and so on.

This wasn’t an abstract exercise on Whitbread’s part: they were trying to assess their competitors products for commercial reasons. It would be a bit weird to give a score of 3 to a beer they knew punters wouldn’t drink, wouldn’t it?

It would, but equally since more or less all they ever say about appearance is “hazy”, it can’t really be applied to cloudy, yeasty beers now. Or do you believe it can?

Nor is mild a good analogy. Still very interesting though.

“Saleability” is a questionable thing innit? What does it mean for a beer to score well on other criteria and to be judged poorly on that?
It’s the beer that’s being judged, not the preconceptions of the poor undiscerning punters.

You are really conducting two studies, aren’t you B+B. One on the state of beer drinking experience between the wars and the other on the assumptions folk have today on the beer drinking experience between the wars and the reluctance to accept it may have been different. In Ontario, there was a technological shift before WWI which brought in efficiencies as well as lighter brighter ales. Another shift happens in the late 40s. Clarity or the lack of haze was a concern when you were seeking to convince someone beer was better than it had been, whether those leaning toward temperance politically in the first case or the shopping housewife in the lifestyle ale era after WWII. Brightness was a quality that was introduced along with increased thinness. Our pal EPT then exported it your way.

It’s interesting to play the consumer envisaged today, most probably have a beer ready to hand in the cellar, i.e. bottle-conditioned. I’d suggest an English style for this, not Belgian. Decant it well into two glasses so you have two clear “pints”. Pour some bottle dregs into one glass or however much would result in the kind of murky look many new-style pints have. Then compare both blind.

The British have only ever drunk God’s own brown bitter with not a hint of haze and a thick creamy head and anyone who disagrees is not a true believer.

I just noticed your last question B&B, and the answer clearly (sorry) has to be no. But the situation you described, assuming the beer was yeast-murky and not lightly hazy, was a lesser of two evils. Anyone, or any experienced drinker at any rate, would prefer the fresh yeasty taste of (otherwise) good beer to one half-sour or spoiled in some other way. Brightness is a value but not an absolute value – few things are though – except the ABV!

By the way I agree with py that British beer was often hazy in the past. Ron has shown this from the 1920’s Whitbread gravity book remarks on other brewers’ beers, and I know it through reading about the need to avoid beer being sold that way going back hundreds of years. But there’s the rub: in what I’ve read, setting aside Moritz and perhaps one or two others, countless writers – brewers not least – expressed the preference for clear beer. Boorde back in the mid-1500’s said: “Ale must have these propertyes, it must be freshe and cleare, it must not be ropy nor smoky, nor it must have no weft nor tayle..”. Why would Boord say it had to be clear? Perhaps he was concerned the lack of filtration would not suit the digestive system. Maybe he was concerned about palate, or both, but the advice was not likely to be aesthetic.

I have no issue with people wanting to drink it muddy, but simply ask that we be told when it is not clear. (Or the reverse: tell us when it is clear, just tell us).


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