Saucy beer names — Dirty Tackle, Piddle Slasher, Old Slapper — are a bit of fun to some, off-putting to others, and either way are another battleground for debates over ‘political correctness’, censorship, good taste and sexism.
We’ve been keeping notes for years, now, trying to work out how they came to be so common in British brewing in particular.
(Though America also has them (Old Leghumper) as does Belgium (Mad Bitch) and they also seem to crop up elsewhere on occasion.)
To have saucy beer names, you need to have beer names — that is, other than in this format:
The 1966 Brewery Manual contains a reference list of trademarked brand names. It’s not comprehensive, Ron Pattinson tells us, but it’s still a good starting point: of the 650 or so provided none are outright filthy and only about ten provide anything for a bar-room wag to get a snigger out of with enough mugging and winking, e.g. Big Horn, Cock o’ the North, ‘I’ll take a Mild Maid please!’ (And it had apparently not even occurred to anyone that there was fun to be had with ‘Blonde’ — no beers are listed.)
There’s no real change by the time of Frank Baillie The Beer Drinker’s Companion in 1973 with only Shepherd Neame Bishop’s Finger giving Mr Nudge-Nudge much to work with, the naughtiness of which was in the eye of the beholder until this much later ad campaign:
That brings us up to the beginning of the microbrewery boom of the 1970s (‘For more on which read Brew Britannia!’ — B&B Head of Sales and Marketing) when it’s business as usual until David Bruce comes on the scene with his Firkin brewpubs. The beers had silly names — Dogbolter, Earthstopper and so on — but the real giggle was in ordering ‘A pint of Firkin bitter!’ Bruce, a compulsive punster and joker, claims not to have spotted the potential for this gag until customers at the Goose & Firkin latched on to it.
There was probably also some influence from the world of comedy and journalism where real ale and its drinkers were often mocked with over-the-top fictional beer names such as Scruttock’s Old Dirigible, for which Alexei Sayle seems to get the credit.
By 1988, when Brian Glover’s CAMRA-published New Beer Guide came out, there were quite a few breweries trying similar stunts. There was Raisdale’s Looby’s Lust, Marston Moor Brewer’s Droop, Rockside’s Hewer’s Droop, Wye Valley Brew 69 (it was our 69th brew!), Min Pin Inn’s Brown Willy (it’s named after a hill!), and The Bull Mastiff Brewery of Penarth, Wales, had beers called Ebony Bitch and Son-of-a-Bitch:
Keen home-brewer Bob Jenkins blames his dogs for the odd names. He keeps Bull Mastiffs.
This defence — it’s quite innocent, you’ve just got dirty minds! — was to become a common theme.
In March and April 1994 there was an exchange of letters in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing which prompted one brewer to express his motives in plain terms. First, there was a complaint from Welsh CAMRA member Jeremy Vernon, titled ‘Who Wants a Tosspot?’
While agreeing with the criticism of renaming pubs by vulgarians… I can’t help but notice a similar trend in the naming of beers… Old Tosspot springs immediately to mind as one of the most recent absurd names for a brew… There are many others (Crippledick, Roger Over and Out etc.), some admittedly quite funny, but the joke is beginning to wear a bit thin… I am not having a go at the likes of the excellent originally-named Old Speckled Hen or wonderful Wobbly Bob, but who needs Old Tosspot? Or is that only too clear?
We were mildly surprised to discover that the brewery responsible for Old Tosspot was Oakham, today best known for their more tastefully named JHB and Citra. A retort from John Wood, the brewery’s original owner, was headlined ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Calling an Ale Old Tosspot’ and begins with the It’s Quite Innocent defence:
While I sympathise to some degree with Mr Vernon’s view that some beers have extreme names which could cause offence (for example, Old Fart and Dog’s Bollocks), I cannot agree that my brew has an ‘an absurd name’… I do not know what connotation Mr Vernon is applying to the word ‘tosspot’ but I would like to to point out that it is simply an old and well-used term for a drunkard — one who tosses the pot or tankard.
The more interesting part of the letter concerns the business incentives for naming beers this way:
I would ask Mr Vernon to spend just a few minutes considering the market from my side of the mash tun. He simply drinks the stuff — to me it’s my livelihood. The cask beer market in this country is now immensely competitive and all the odds are stacked against the small independent brewer… [Maybe] the biggest obstacle… is the success of the independents in terms of the vast numbers of beers now on the market. It is no longer sufficient to name a beer simply Bitter, or Best Bitter, or Extra Special Bitter — the name has to grab the attention of the punter… A name that stands out and is memorable is surely fair game. I am sorry if this offends Mr Vernon’s sensibilities.
At this point, we reckon there’s enough evidence to back up what we’d already suspected: saucy beer names are a phenomenon that arose in the 1980s as a result of a crowded market and, at the same time, an increase in DIY branding and marketing.
These days, the market is even more crowded and deliberately provocative beer names are now just one way of grabbing attention and rather passé compared to collaborations, unusual dispense methods, cloudiness and stunt ingredients.
UPDATE 13/09/2016: Added Ronnie Barker LP cover.