It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933

Detail from the cover of The American Mercury.

In 1933 the conservative American journal The American Mercury published an article on the state of British beer and pubs by English journalist H.W. Seaman, who lived and worked in the US and Canada for some years.

We stum­bled across it look­ing for con­tem­po­rary accounts of ‘improved pubs’ but in its 15 or so pages there’s plen­ty of oth­er gold to be mined. We’ll let you explore the rest for your­self but want­ed to put the bit specif­i­cal­ly about the state of our beer under the micro­scope.

First, Mr Sea­man makes clear that he found no evi­dence of British beer being adul­ter­at­ed:

Hop sub­sti­tutes are used, I regret to say, but the roots of duo­de­nal ulcers are not there. Eng­lish ale is prob­a­bly as clean and as hon­est as ever it was. But it is unhealth­ily weak.

Then he says some­thing which coun­ters the roman­tic view of Eng­lish ses­sion beer:

Ale to be whole­some must be strong. The Ger­man- and Bohemi­an-type beers which Amer­i­ca favored in the old days and will now favor again exert their human­iz­ing influ­ences not vio­lent­ly but grad­u­al­ly, and the patient pass­es through an infin­i­ty of plea­sur­able states before attain­ing the final, beatif­ic anes­the­sia. Ale, how­ev­er, is intend­ed by the Almighty to deliv­er its mes­sage at once. Its appeal is unsub­tle.  Three half-pints, and you know you have had it. If it is strong, it has vast­ly sweet­ened you and your sur­round­ings. If it is weak, it has soured your stom­ach and your out­look.

In oth­er words, chilled lager chills you out while British ale ought to knock you out.

Anoth­er star­tling state­ment comes next though per­haps we might write it off as pan­der­ing to an Amer­i­can audi­ence:

My present home­sick­ness, in fact, is less for good ale, on which I was weaned, than for the soft­er, kind­lier brews that were lat­er revealed to me—the light Amer­i­can beers of the Pil­sner and Munich vari­eties, that came up cold and clear, with a creamy col­lar that clung to the glass. Their going down was as love­ly as their com­ing up.

Yes, Amer­i­can beer, which even now some British drinkers take to be uni­form­ly awful with Lite Lager in mind, was more enjoy­able than British mild or bit­ter. He reck­ons that’s part­ly because it was cold but points out that British ale does­n’t work when chilled – it just turns ‘thick and flat’.

Patzenhofer Lager advert, 1937.

Next, he men­tions the avail­abil­i­ty of Con­ti­nen­tal lager beers in Lon­don, pro­vid­ing fur­ther evi­dence for our argu­ment that lager was the ‘craft beer­’ of its day:

It is true that Münch­en­er Lowen­brau and Pil­sner Urquell, per­haps the noblest brews of their respec­tive orders that are obtain­able today, are on tap, in good con­di­tion, in cer­tain dis­pen­saries of the West End of Lon­don, but their high price, thanks to the tar­iff, puts them out of reach of more than nine-tenths of the peo­ple.

(Con­sid­er the tra­jec­to­ry of lager in the decades that fol­lowed and think for a moment about what that might mean – moral pan­ic over Hop Hooli­gans off their faces on licence-brewed Amer­i­can IPA in 2086?)

PUB SIGN: 'Public Bar'.

He also pro­vides a handy key to the class sta­tus of the var­i­ous styles, as well as some telling tast­ing notes (our emphases):

Call for ale in the saloon bar of a Lon­don pub, and the bar­maid will say, ‘Oth­er side, please,’ jerk­ing her wet thumb in the direc­tion of the pub­lic, or four-ale bar; for ale in Lon­don is a vul­gar word. The mid­dle-class­es there drink bit­ter, a pale, gold­en beer so sharply hop-fla­vored that for­eign­ers find it undrink­able. Bur­ton, in Lon­don and cer­tain oth­er cities that have come under the Cock­ney blight, is a gener­ic name for a dark ale of stan­dard strength or less, whether it is brewed in Bur­ton-on-Trent or else­where. Its social sta­tus is above mild and below bit­ter; although its price is that of bit­ter, it is rarely seen in a West End saloon bar. In the North, beer of sim­i­lar char­ac­ter is called strong mild. Bit­ter is unpop­u­lar in Scot­land; the ale of that coun­try, dark and sparkling as Miinch­en­er, is excel­lent, and is com­mon­ly kept and dis­pensed at a low­er tem­per­a­ture than Eng­lish ale.

Sea­man, being a pro­fes­sion­al man, drank bit­ter, of course. There’s anoth­er nugget there for those of us track­ing the evo­lu­tion of gold­en ale, and sharply hop-flavoured sounds very appeal­ing. It would be good to find lat­er com­ments from him – he died in 1955, as far as we can tell, so would cer­tain­ly have had chance to try the ear­li­est keg bit­ters, for exam­ple.

Final­ly, there is this state­ment which seems to be spo­ken direct­ly to 2016 through some kind of Time Tun­nel:

[The] words can and growler, in the Amer­i­can sense [are unknown in Britain]. Nobody above the rank of chim­ney sweep could afford to be seen car­ry­ing home the sup­per beer.

There is a red her­ring here, which has caught out a cou­ple of peo­ple late­ly: men­tions of cans in sources from the 1930s and ear­li­er often refer not to sealed tins as we know them but to small pails or jugs, i.e. can­is­ters. That men­tion of growlers still works though, except that nowa­days car­ry­ing a take­away con­tain­er of draught beer is an almost exclu­sive­ly gen­tri­fied behav­iour, isn’t it?

N.B. After World War II The Amer­i­can Mer­cury ceased to be mere­ly con­ser­v­a­tive and became ‘vir­u­lent­ly anti-Semit­ic’ so watch where you step if you go wan­der­ing off through the archive.

One thought on “It Is Even Worse in England: Mild, Bitter & Lager, 1933”

  1. Good find. Some remarks.

    This idea that lager some­how was a bet­ter form of beer had tak­en deep root in pre-Pro­hi­bi­tion Amer­i­ca. But it was large­ly non­sense, being pro­pa­gan­da to pro­mote a drink that hap­pened to be a folk bev­er­age of the peo­ple who made it. Even the British were influ­enced by it, as com­ments by Gra­ham and oth­ers in the Jour­nal of the Insti­tute of Brew­ing show. In their case, it was a sign of lack of con­fi­dence.

    So this writer was sim­ply repeat­ing the par­ty line from before Vol­stead.

    Some Amer­i­cans were capa­ble of resist­ing it and appre­ci­at­ing the best of the ale tra­di­tion and places that pur­veyed it; I dis­cussed one such case recent­ly on my blog.

    As to anti-Semi­tism, unfor­tu­nate­ly Hen­ry L. Menck­en him­self was afflict­ed with the ani­mus. Numer­ous pub­lished writ­ings, some in the Mer­cury, show clear evi­dence of that. And so do a num­ber of his books and essays pub­lished in the 20s and 30s. Were fur­ther proof need­ed, his posthu­mous­ly pub­lished diaries show an advanced case of the prej­u­dice. Per­haps his Ger­man back­ground explained part of it and/or his fam­i­ly back­ground: he recounts in one of his essays that his father announced to busi­ness prospects that he was­n’t a Jew­ish Ger­man, or to that effect…

    At the same time, Menck­en worked with Jews most of his life, famous­ly his co-edi­tor George Nathan and also the pub­lish­er Knopf. Menck­en drew unpleas­ant dis­tinc­tions in his social rela­tions, one might say. Final­ly some of these were marred by his ani­mus. An old beer drink­ing friend, sur­named Good­man (he was Philip Good­man I think) broke with Menck­en when he refused to denounce Hitler’s anti-Jew­ish mea­sures of the 1930s.

    Menck­en was a great styl­ist, and will be remem­bered for that. But his ideas were a car­i­ca­ture of social Dar­win­ism. Inci­den­tal­ly there is a record­ing of him on youtube, late in life, the only one that sur­vives. He talks about drink­ing a bit (not Jews, except implied­ly prob­a­bly when he crit­i­cis­es Hol­ly­wood), and rather odd­ly states he was­n’t real­ly a great fanci­er of beer.

    Nonethe­less he wrote the Omnibibu­lous Mr. Menck­en (or a name like that) which is well worth read­ing – once again he could be very fun­ny when not talk­ing about Jews and blacks. He dis­liked the British in sim­i­lar mea­sure by the way, and dis­agreed with Amer­i­can entry into both world wars, which tells you some­thing about him, too.

    Gary

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