The 1965 book Bar Service offers a snapshot of what was going on in pubs at the time and contains lots of interesting, often amusing, details.
It was written by James H. Coombs and published by Barrie & Rockliff. It is illustrated with cartoons by Bill Hooper, like this:
Coombs was a former solicitor who, after serving in the catering section of the RAF during World War II, ended up working in pubs in working class districts of London such as Kilburn and Elephant & Castle. He ran the bars of Collins’ Music Hall for several years and, by the time this book came out, was the proprietor of a training school for publicans and their staff.
He opens the book with what we now recognise as the traditional ‘Abandon All Hope’ warning:
So you fancy entering the Licensed Trade? You have thought it over and made up your mind that serving drinks to an unappreciative and sometimes downright rude public is just the life for you? … To make a real success of Barmanship you have got to like it… From the customer’s side of the bar some very strange ideas prevail about the ‘wonderful life’ behind the bar. These often stem from semi-alcoholics who think it must be heaven to be surrounded by unlimited drink.
This part of the book is the part that will be of most interest to many, capturing as it does the moment when mild had been usurped by bitter, lager was just on the rise, and keg was overtaking what we now know as ‘cask’ or ‘real ale’ but which Mr Coombs simply called ‘draught beer’. He starts out by explaining the reasons for the decline in the popularity of cask ale: poorly trained staff undertaking cellar-work in place of experience cellarmen; the decreasing strength of ale in the face of heavy taxation; and changes in public taste and habits. Of the latter, he says:
It was usual before World War II for the ordinary working man to come alone into the public bar for half a pint of ale and five ‘Weights’ [cigarettes] (total 4½d). Now he may come into the saloon with his wife or daughter for a lager and lime and a large gin and tonic and twenty ‘Senior Service’ — and good luck to him!
He regarded ‘Pressure Beer in the shape of “Keg” or “Canister” beer’ as a hopeful development ‘which may go a long way towards maintaining and even strengthening the premier position which draught beer has always held’.
There is a long chapter on bottled beer. Pale ale (AKA light ale) and brown ale, says Coombs, made up ‘the bulk of the bottled trade in most London and suburban houses — apart from Guinness.’ There were also ‘Special Beers… heavier alcoholically and well advertised by national brewers’:
They are, of course, dearer than the light beers and are the pride of their respective breweries. They are pale in colour and sparkling. Rarely, if ever, does anything go wrong with any of these beers — it would be an event to find one of them out of condition except through negligence.
Heavy beers (barley wines) are listed next, then India Pale Ales (‘a pale bitter beer’), and Colne Spring Ale which gets its own section:
This is a strong and potent ale, and if you hear any man boast that he drank ten pints one evening and then walked home you can safely say he is not telling the whole truth — he probably walked home two days later! … Produced by Benskins of Watford (Ind Coope)… [it is] carefully brewed to the most exacting limits, is is afterwards stored in casks for twelve months, during which time these hogsheads are regularly rolled and topped up. During this time a fermentation takes place which gives the beer a high alcoholic content and its characteristic flavour.
(This was probably Brettanomyces doing its thing, although last time we checked there was an ongoing debate about this among beer historians.)
What we would today call bottle-conditioned beers are described as ‘Natural Beers’ and detailed instructions are given for avoiding ‘cloudy and unpalatable’ pours:
Even so you may find some customers who insist on having the sediment poured into the glass — sometimes pouring it in themselves… [And] there are eccentrics who enjoy ‘The Bottoms’ as a final ‘Liqueur’…
(Something something hipsters something something.)
“Customers will ask you for a ‘Baby Ben’, a ‘Mackey’, a ‘D.D.’, a ‘J.C.’ or a ‘Red’ and you will not look very intelligent if you have to enquire what they mean.”
In the section on lager, which lists many famous brand names, Holsten gets a perhaps surprising shout out as ‘a first-class brew, stored (lagered) for six months prior to shipment… a natural lager (not carbonated)’. There’s a heritage there waiting to be reclaimed. More generally, lager is described as being a joke to ‘hardened beer drinkers… a slightly “off-beat” drink with a certain snob appeal’. And you know that grapefruit beer trend that some people find annoying? Well, lager and lime we know, but…
The Americans started a vogue by adding Lime Juice Cordial to lager… Younger customers sometimes call for Lime Juice in Pale Ale — presumably for the same effect.
Stout is divided into two familiar categories, sweet and dry, and a nice detail here is a report on the popularity of Mac-and-Mild — as you might imagine, a mix of Mackeson milk stout and mild. There’s a huge amount of reverent detail on how to store, handle and serve Guinness, which makes it sound like wrangling a wild animal. And there’s more evidence of the status of stout as primarily a ladies’ drink, despite the macho image it acquired in later decades:
The old ladies in your ‘Private Bar’ are the greatest connoisseurs of Guinness and you may safely trust their judgement… If they say it is ‘no good’ change it at once without quibbling.
In the chapter on cask, keg and tank beer Coombs observes that mild ale, AKA XX, is on the outs:
The trend in recent years has been… towards Bitter which many can now afford an consider much better value for money. In some public-houses mild ale is not even on sale and apart from a few elderly old-timers who will stick to their pints it is more often sold mixed…
The mixes listed are:
- Light and Mild — cask mild with bottled pale ale in a pint glass
- Brown and Mild AKA up and down — cask mild with bottled brown ale
- Stout and Mild — you get the idea
- Mild and Bitter — cask mild with cask bitter
- Old and Mild — cask mild with cask old ale
Mild, he says, is usually dark in London and the South of England but ‘should always pull up clear — crystal clear… If it is “murky“ or “muddy” something is wrong’. (An early use of ‘murky’ in this context, by the way.) It should also have a ‘nice creamy head’.
Bitter was clearly at this time the premium product: ‘Brewers take immense trouble… ensuring that it reaches your cellar in clean, sparkling and prime condition’. They would, Coombs says, replace a bad cask at the drop of a hat rather than risk any damage to their reputation, ‘so there is no excuse for serving anything short of the very best’. Foreshadowing the coming of CAMRA he also mentions that ‘You may have one or more qualities of Bitter to deal with; in a “Free” house there may be eight or ten!’
Bass and Worthingon are treated distinctly as ‘the ultimate in draught bitter’, with mention made of their fans whose ‘opinion constantly voiced’ is that they are best drawn from the wood. Had he encountered the bolshy men of the SPBW, do you think?
Another hint of the consumer revolt just around the corner comes with this passage on resistance to the rise of keg:
It must be mentioned… that some [brewers] steadfastly refused to have anything to do with any such newfangled notions, standing by the time-honoured method of delivery and service, and, given good cellarmen, who will say that they are wrong?
The final passage on beer covers its preparation for service and highlights an interesting change in terminology: breweries, Coombs says, sent out beer in five forms — Fined, Unfined, Racked and Filtered, Pressure or Tank. Unfined, a buzzword in 2017, didn’t mean hazy or cloudy, only that the publican or his cellar staff were expected to administer the finings, supplied by the brewery, on site. Could the presence of veterans in the trade be one explanation for why this kind of thing keeps happening?
One final nugget on this topic: the glossary at the back of the book lists ‘Fishguts’ as traditional cellarmen’s slang for finings, so neither BrewDog nor any other 21st Century capital-C-craft brewery gets the blame/credit for that controversial bit of slang after all.
We were tipped off to this book by Mark Hazell and John Lester in comments on last week’s post about con tricks in pubs — thanks, chaps!