While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.
It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.
Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)
Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.
At this point we’d like to thank Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!
This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.
So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.
At the beginning of the 20th century most English pubs sold what we would now call cask ale, with bottled beers just beginning to become seriously popular.
“The varieties of beers brewed at the present day are exceedingly numerous. Roughly speaking, they may be divided into strong, medium and light. In the strong, we may include stock or old ales, and the heavier stouts. The medium comprises the lighter stouts, superior bitter beers, mild or four-ale, which latter is still the beverage of the working classes, and porter.” — Julian Baker, The Brewing Industry, 1905
In his 1909 Style Guide, 2010, Ron Pattinson gives the following typical line-up of draught beers for a London pub in the Edwardian period:
- X Ale (Mild) at 5% ABV
- Porter, 5%
- PA (pale ale, AKA bitter) at 6%
- KK (Burton), 7%
- Stout, 7%
The same book also tells us that a little more than 30 per cent of all the beer produced by the big London brewer Whitbread in 1910 was basic mild, with pale ales of various types making up around 25 per cent, porter about 12, and stouts the remaining 30 or so. In other words, there was a pretty even balance, and no single style was overwhelmingly dominant.
“The ales have chiefly a vinous character and possess a good percentage of alcohol and extract, strongly marked hop flavor and bitter taste, and are rich in carbonic acid… Porter, with a rich and very heavy foam, was in former years a very heavy beverage, but at present is brewed lighter, and has, as a result of its composition, a characteristic bitter and dry taste.” — One Hundred Years of Brewing, 1901
Nationwide, though, mild was already dominant, with about three quarters of the market according to one contemporary writer. In this period, the same source tells us, mild was characterised by “fullness and sweetness of flavour… [with] no flavour of age upon it”, and minimal hop bitterness.
Smaller, less fancy pubs — basic beer-houses on back streets, or in villages — were less likely to have cellars, beer engines and hand-pumps, instead dispensing beer directly from the cask.
You might drink your beer from pewter tankards (still hanging on, but old-fashioned), ceramic mugs (popular) or glass (on the rise).
“As the First World War progressed, it came to be regarded as an unqualified misfortune for Britain’s brewers… intensifying the existing trend towards lower levels of beer consumption.” — Gourvish & Wilson
The coming of war saw both a drive to reduce harmful drinking among vital industrial workers and a squeeze on materials, so beer became more scarce, weaker and less varied in style, while pubs had their opening hours reduced.
The price of beer doubled between 1914-16, too, so that the kind of draught beer that had once cost 4d per quart cost 4d per pint, and kept creeping up until ordinary mild cost 7d a pint by 1917.
From 1917 so-called ‘Government Ale’ was introduced, with brewers given permission to produce more beer (there was industrial unrest driven by shortages) as long as half of what was brewed had an original gravity lower than 1036°. That mean mild (X ale) had an ABV of about 3.5% — astonishingly weak compared to what pre-War drinkers had been used to. A report from The Times for 20 July 1917 suggests pub-goers were not convinced:
“‘Watered Mild’ and ‘Wash’ were among the descriptions applied to it by those who sampled a glass on Thursday, though many working men said that it was ‘not so bad’, or that they had ‘tasted worse’.”
British beer never fully recovered from this shock, even when restrictions were loosened or lifted in the years following WWI.
In his 1922 book The Art of Innkeeping Alexander Part, one of the key players in the improved pub movement of the inter-war years, gave details of the kinds of draught beer pubs might stock, depending on what the brewery to which they were tied provided:
“Almost every house stocks [bottled] Bass, Worthington, and Guinness. Whitbread’s and Watney’s Stout and Ale, which are of a lower gravity and price, are also popular. Pints and half-pints are the most usual sizes.” — Alexander Part, 1922
That might look quite similar to a line-up from the 1900s but the balance had shifted. Porter was on its last legs, both in terms of quality and availability, brewed in token amounts by those breweries that hadn’t given up on it altogether. In 1923 Manchester brewery Boddington’s was producing only four different beers, down from eight in 1914. What most breweries were producing, and the vast majority of pub drinkers were consuming, was mild.
Mild in the 1920s was strong by modern standards, nudging into 4+% ABV territory, but still much weaker than before WWI. Oddly, it had also begun to get darker through the addition of brewing sugars and caramel, perhaps because people associated high colour with high strength, and stronger flavours.
By this time, bitter was the most common word used to describe draught pale ales, which were relatively weak by pre-WWI standards, but also expensive, and thus considered the classiest of the draught ales.
There was also a new push on lager, both English brewed and imported, picking up the thread of the embryonic lager boom that stalled with the advent of WWI. It represented a tiny part of the market, and was largely confined to the poshest bars and pubs, but was much talked about and advertised. We’d imagine that someone drinking lager in the 1920s would be making quite a statement, much as craft beer drinkers were in 2008.
There was a reduction in the number of the smallest, tattiest pubs in slum areas, and they were replaced with larger, smarter, purpose-built modern pubs. Many older pubs that survived were refurbished to modern standards. As a result draught beer stored in cellars and served using hand-pumps became the “prevailing system”.
Most people were drinking out of glasses, the mass-production of which had been perfected.
The 1930s is when information about what people were drinking in pubs starts to become easier to lay hands on. In Bolton, Lancashire, when the Mass Observation project came to town in the late 1930s they found that mild was by far the most popular type of beer, sold at 5d a pint. There was also best mild (“light in colour, like bitter”) which cost a penny more per pint. Draught stout was all but extinct with draught IPA strangely more common, though still rarely seen.
“It’s a good appetiser — but I wouldn’t like to have a lot of it.” — a Bolton barman on draught IPA
The reduction in available draught styles seems to to have continued. The average Bolton pubs, MO tells us, had three or four pumps which once served mild, best mild and stout. By the late 1930s, though, one or two were usually either disconnected or being used as backup mild pumps.
Though the breweries wouldn’t divulge sales information the MO crew did manage to get an estimate of weekly sales from a loose-tongued barman:
- 2.5 barrels of mild
- 16 doz. of bottled ale
- 12 doz. of Guinness
- 4 doz. small bottles stout
There was practically no demand for bitter, apparently, and individual landlords, when asked, estimated that draught mild made up around 90 per cent of their total sales. Of the remaining 10 per cent, a substantial part was made up by women drinking bottled beer, especially stout, which was somehow seen as more respectable than draught mild. (But it’s worth saying that the boom in bottled beer was primarily down to people drinking more at home, not in the pub.)
“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.” — H.W. Seaman, 1933
In London, mild was also the default, according to T.E.B. Clarke in his What’s Yours? of 1938, to the extent that asking a non-specific order for “a glass of beer” was taken to mean that you wanted mild. He also recorded that some London pubs still had porter (“a lowly brand of draught stout”); that bitter was the safest thing to order, being a high-class drink; and mentions Burton, AKA Old. So that’s four beer styles common enough on draught to be worth mentioning. He does not mention bottled beers but, by way of adding variety, gives a list of suggested mixes, from mild and bitter to “BB” — Burton and bitter.
World War II was difficult for brewers but nothing like as difficult as World War I in that there was none of Lloyd George’s moral objection to drinking wrapped up in restrictions on materials. Beer got terribly weak but there was plenty of it. Gourvish and Wilson put forward an interesting theory in The British Brewing Industry, 1830-1980:
The quality and strength of draught beers left considerable room for improvement, and may well have stimulated a distrust of the darker draught beers (such as mild) and a corresponding preference for bottled beers after the war.
The idea that World War II did for mild is temptingly neat. We know that before the war Cornish brewery St Austell was producing a standard range of beers including multiple takes on mild. Then from 1942-44 their production was restricted to a single pale ale at around 3% ABV. We don’t know why — perhaps because they couldn’t get the sugars they required? — but it’s an interesting presage of things to come.
So, if you’d walked into a pub in England during World War II, you would probably have found beer (although there were shortages later on); probably a choice of beers, just about; but they would probably have been weak — 3% or less — and brewed to a compromised recipe, with fewer hops. This state of affairs carried on, and indeed worsened, in the years immediately following the war.
As things began to normalise, with rationing on the way out and reconstruction slowly getting underway, the beer in pubs not only began to regain its variety but also underwent some big changes.
“How often he hears a licensee say, ‘Oh, yes, they call for that mixed with with half-a-pint of bitter.’ “That” is probably one of the bottled beers the brewer has brewed with extreme trouble to be drunk on its own.” — Pleasing All Palates, The Times, 1958
First, there was an unexpected surge in the popularity of bottled beer. Pubs which had been built with cask ale in mind suddenly had customers who wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole. Hammond’s of Bradford reported that in 1939 they were selling 75% draught beer to 25% bottled, but that by 1951 the split had shifted to 70/30. By 1958 Ind Coope was reporting that about half the beer it brewed was ending up in bottles, compared to less than 10 per cent before WWII. You might have seen people (especially women) drinking Mackeson milk stout, or brown ale; would-be sophisticates drinking lager; and people mixing bottled ales with draught bitter to give the latter a lift.
There was much speculation over this change: it was because people had become obsessed with hygiene, or because of TV advertising, or because bottles offered more opportunity for colourful packaging and branding, or because young people were rejecting “what Dad drinks”, or because men wanted to keep their best suits clean in the pub, or because more women were drinking in the pub, or… All of the above, to some degree, were probably true.
Then there was a slow growth in the popularity of bitter. By the end of the decade mild was still far and away the biggest selling draught beer overall with 65 per cent of sales in 1959 (FT, 12/63) but bitter had made significant headway, especially in in cities like London and Birmingham, to take the remaining 35 per cent.
“Lower income groups prefer dark, mild beer — and brewers put colouring in to suit them. The more money you earn, the paler the beer you drink.” — Daily Herald, 28/04/58
“[Most] of our people have never had it so good.” — Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1957
This decade also saw the emergence of keg bitter in earnest, having been invented as we know it in the 1930s. It made up a tiny percentage of sales in pubs during the 1950s but was being heavily marketed, and this was the decade when many breweries first began to brew their own answers to Flower’s Keg and Watney’s Red Barrel.
The Lilliput Beer Book, a pamphlet given away with a men’s magazine in 1956 and written by Andrew Campbell, offers a helpful snapshot:
Mild — usually about 3% alcohol by volume, lightly hopped, brewed from a mixture of pale and amber malts with some sugar. The popular drink of the public bar. Mild beer, chilled and filtered, is bottled as brown ale…. There are two stouts, nationally distributed: Guinness Extra Stout… and Mackeson’s… Draught pale ale — Bitter — 1030º or a little stronger, is the popular drink of the saloon bar, smooth, dry, refreshing. Filtered, chilled to 33º it becomes the very popular Light Ale… Strong draught beers go by the name of Best Bitter and sell for a few pence more than the ordinary bitters… Brewers are introducing more and more strong pale ales in bottle. They go by name [and] are well known locally…
In Part 2, Coming Soon:
Bitter takes over but has a short reign before it is usurped by lager, before variety begins to once again creep into the diet of the British pub-goer.
- BBPA Statistical Handbook 2018
- Ron Pattinson: 1909 Style Guide; blog.
- Martyn Cornell: Amber, Gold & Black; Beer — the story of the pint; blog, especially ‘The 1900 Pub’, April 2011.
- Wilson & Gourvish, The British Brewing Industry 1830-1980.