The Problem with Nostalgia

It is possible to be fascinated by the past while at the same time welcoming change.

You might get the impression from some of what we write, and the images that we share here and on Twitter, that we are hopeless nostalgists, but it’s not quite that.

There is sometimes a yearning there — a desire to step into that photograph from 1938, or to know what a particular beer from 1912 might have tasted like — and because we’ve ended up specialising to a degree in recent beer history we do dwell in the past.

But what’s missing is the sense of melancholy. We don’t, as it happens, believe in the Good Old Days. Slops in the mild, buckets of sawdust and phlegm, and ladies only in the lounge, if at all? Fascinating, but hardly desirable.

We’d love to taste Boddington’s as it was in 1970 — it sounds delicious — and we’d be pleased to see more decent mild around in pubs. Historic recipes intrigue us, and can be revelatory.

At the same time, we wouldn’t expect anyone to start a brewery in 2018 with mild and bitter as the core of its business if all the indicators are that the money is in hoppy pale ales and lager. Tastes change, and so beer changes, and styles, brands and individual beers come and go. That’s as it should be. It’s healthy.

The same goes for pubs. One of the arguments of 20th Century Pub is that pubs have changed a lot more over the course of the last couple of hundred years than is sometimes acknowledged: they are not a fixed point around which the world moves, but part of the world, reflecting its trends and tendencies. (“Pubs aren’t what they used to be” was probably first uttered about ten years after the first pub came into existence.)

We are not appalled by gastropubs, craft beer bars, micropubs, industrial-style taprooms or any of the other new mutations. Adaptability and reinvention is evidence that the pub lives, and has a will to keep living.

It’s exciting to find a well-preserved pub, and we would certainly rather people didn’t mindlessly trash historic interiors, or knock down pubs without permission.

That doesn’t mean we believe there’s any point in scrambling to fix pub culture as it was in 1882, or 1958, or 1983, or at whichever arbitrary point someone might decide is when perfection was achieved.

Watering the Mild and Other Wheezes, 1955

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?

So They Brewed Their Own Beer — The Northern Clubs Federation

There’s been a bit of talk lately about working men’s clubs and the breweries established to supply them and we thought we ought to flag an apparently little-known book on the subject.

So They Brewed Their Own Beer by Ted Elkins was published in 1970 and tells the story of the rise of the Northern Clubs Federation. Elkins was a journalist from the North East of England whose career started in the 1950s and as a freelance PR man he wrote a few official company and organisational histories relating to brewing and hospitality.

Cover of So They Brewed Their Own Beer.

STBTOB opens on 24 May 1919 at the Social Club in Prudhoe, a village on Tyneside, where the founders of what would become the Federation Brewery met for the first time to discuss the idea. Elkins, possibly scrambling to reach word count, or perhaps just to make the job more fun, lays it on a bit thick:

These were new men, bruised and bloodied in mind and limb by the carnage of slaughter and survival. They came back [from war] with a sense of comradeship, buoyant in triumph, each humbly aware of his obligation to his fellow man, the need to right the wrongs of a world irrevocably changed by the torment of war.

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An Enormous Drinking Barracks, 1959

Among the literary sources we identified but did not have space to mention in 20th Century Pub was Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 comic social realist novel Billy Liar.

It contains a chapter in which Billy Fisher, an aspiring comedian and writer in the fictional Yorkshire town of Stradhoughton, practices his stand-up routine at a local pub:

The New House was an an enormous drinking barracks that had been built to serve Cherry Row and the streets around it. The New House was not its proper title. According to the floodlit inn-sign stuck on a post in the middle of the empty car park, the pub was called the Who’d A Thought It. There had been a lot of speculation about how this name had come about, but whatever the legend was it had fallen completely flat in Clogiron Lane. Nobody called the pub anything but the New House.

There was a windy, rubber-tiled hallway where the children squatted, eating potato crisps and waiting for their mothers. Two frosted-glass doors, embossed with the brewery trademark, led off it, one into the public bar and one into the saloon…

The men who say [in the public bar] were refugees from the warm terrace-end pubs that had been pulled down; they around drinking mild and calling to each other across the room as though nothing had changed… The few items in the New House that gave it anything like the feel of a pub — the dartboard, the cribbage markers, the scratched blind-box, and the pokerwork sign that said IYBMADIBYO, if you buy me a drink I’ll buy you one — were all part of the same portable world, as if they had been wheeled here in prams in the flight from the old things.

This fictional pub has a concert hall which suggests to us that Waterhouse had in mind one built between the wars rather than in the period after World War II.

The Belle Isle, on an estate not far from where Waterhouse grew up, is one possible candidate as a model — a drinking barracks indeed, but now a nursing home.

Don’t Worry, Be (Mostly) Happy

This post was written for #BeeryLongreads2018 and made possible by the support of our Patreon subscribers. Do consider signing up if you enjoy this blog, or perhaps just buy us a one-off pint.

For the last year or so we’ve been slowly chewing over a single big question: how healthy is British beer culture?

You might remember, if you’re a long-time reader, that we first wrote about the idea of healthy beer culture in 2013, but that was a set of bullet points. This post expands on those ideas with another five years’-worth of evidence, experience and thinking.

We should confess that our starting point is one of mild frustration at the pervasive idea that British beer – and beer culture more generally – is ailing. We see various worries expressed on social media, and in blog posts and articles, each one discrete and personal, but adding up to a mass of anxiety. If you’re in this bubble it can feel like the end times.

To provide fuel for this specific blog post we asked our Twitter followers to tell us what, if anything, made them worried for the future of British beer. Some statements echoed things we’ve seen said many times before, while others flagged issues we had not considered. Quite a few effectively cancelled each other out, highlighting the absurdity of thinking about British beer as a monolith. There is no single idea of what healthy looks like, and no victory that won’t feel like a defeat to somebody else.

In this post we want to focus on some of the most commonly expressed fears, question whether they have a basis in reality, and consider the the likely impact of those that do.

Let’s begin with a staple of beer commentary for the past 25 years or so: the  perils of the pursuit of novelty.

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