Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.
Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.
It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.
For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.
The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”
[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.
Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:
“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”
As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:
[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…
(Further reading on p.112 of this 1923 paper on pub cellars.)
The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.
I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.
Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:
“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”
Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.
Eventually, he confronts Bill.
“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.
I decided to help him.
“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”
“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.
He cleared his throat.
“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.
Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:
- It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
- Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?
The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:
I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.
But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.
The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.
And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.
Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.
Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.
But, anyway, it’s worth a read.
Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?