Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955

Detail from the cover of "We Keep a Pub".

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.

Mr Grainger worries
Car­toon by ‘Starke’.

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:

  1. 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”.
  2. 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?

7 thoughts on “Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955”

  1. The 1923 paper is fas­ci­nat­ing. They reck­on 14.5C for beer in the cel­lar. Bit low­er these days. His pref­er­ence for bright/tank beer is also extreme­ly inter­est­ing. I did­n’t even know it was avail­able or com­mon at that time.

    Lots of great stuff there.

  2. Always risky extrap­o­lat­ing gen­er­al­i­sa­tions from sin­gu­lar expe­ri­ence, but believe the Mild exam­ple has a ring of truth. Worked in a num­ber of pubs in the Eight­ies. Mild was already a dying beer in the South by then, but a Wor­thing pub (long gone, now a shop, but bet­ter remain name­less in case any con­cerned still alive) remained one of few in town cen­tre still stock­ing it – Wat­ney’s XX if recall­ing cor­rect­ly. Then land­lord had a pur­pose built home made tool for open­ing keg bar­rels, which he inti­mat­ed were com­mon through the trade. All Guin­ness slops in par­tic­u­lar went back into the Mild keg; but not com­plete­ly averse to ‘recy­cling’ oth­er drip tray con­tents into it on occa­sion either.
    To be fair, the locals and some tourists, com­plete­ly unware of the prac­tice, swore by it, insist­ing he served the best Mild around. I do won­der whether this sug­gests oth­er land­lords were even less fussy as to what went back into their Mild.

  3. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, kind of sums it up. In many ways the British did­n’t deserve their gas­tro­nom­ic her­itage, hence the beer por­tion com­ing almost to a stand­still in the 1970s (along with good bread, real sausage, cus­tard sans pack­et, etc.).

    Most coun­tries are sim­i­lar though, for the same or dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Even France has changed great­ly in a gen­er­a­tion under influ­ences of the infor­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion and glob­al­i­ty.


  4. Yeah, when I start­ed drink­ing the stan­dard com­ment about Mild was always that that’s where the slops went. One rea­son why can­ny West Rid­ing drinkers gen­er­al­ly pre­ferred Light Mild… 😉
    But every­one, even lager drinkers, knew where the mild was safe and where it was like­ly to be slo­prid­den. And where they watered the beer…
    But mild only real­ly lost its stig­ma for me when I moved to the West Mid­lands, where the mild almost always tast­ed decent, but the bit­ter tast­ed like slops…

  5. The local free paper in Wandsworth, when I lived there in the ear­ly 80s, had an arti­cle in one issue on the device that Huish men­tions along with a pic­ture. I don’t think they named any pubs using them or who made it, but obvi­ous­ly there was enough sales poten­tial for some­one to put them into pro­duc­tion.
    Short mea­sure is a scan­dal that the British seem inured to and I don’t know of any­where out­side the British Isles where cus­tomers are treat­ed in this way – where else uses brim mea­sure glass­es? CAMRA com­mend­ably sells full pints at fes­ti­vals but I would say that the use of lined glass­es else­where has if any­thing gone sharply down over the last 40 years – pre­sum­ably match­ing the unfor­tu­nate decline in the use of metered elec­tric pumps.
    I remem­ber talk­ing to some­one who was a pub man­ag­er for a large Lon­don-based chain in the 80s and he said that com­pa­ny pol­i­cy was to obtain a cash ‘yield’ of 75 pints per firkin. Their pubs sold sev­er­al beers but includ­ing Bod­ding­tons at the time and he advised drink­ing that beer as the straw colour dis­cour­aged pour­ing back slops.

  6. My first pub job was in a pop­u­lar New­cas­tle pub in the ear­ly 80’s. It served Sam Smiths OBB and the almost black Youngers No.3. The lat­ter was the recip­i­ent of all of the pulled-through cask and keg beer and lager from line clean­ing and some­times what­ev­er was in the drip trays at the end of the night. One of the reg­u­lars was a brew­er from the Tyne Brew­ery who thought his col­leagues from Edin­burgh and the land­lord pro­duced the finest No.3. Fil­ter­ing back was stan­dard prac­tice and serv­ing cask just made it much eas­i­er than degassing kegs to open them up.

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