A Designer Reflects on Pubs, 1968

“The typical English pub, sought after by the foreign tourist, is an established part of the British way of life. But like everything else it is changing. What was it, what is it and what will it be?”

That’s the question John Merilion asks at the opening of a substantial article published in the arts supplement of the Birmingham Post for Saturday 30 November 1968.

Merilion was a design consultant working in the Midlands and a lecturer at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, and was apparently still around as recently as 2014. He was professionally involved in pub design as in the case of the Red Admiral on the Sutton Hill estate at the new town of Madeley in Shropshire.

The Red Admiral, Madeley.
John Merilion’s butterfly for The Red Admiral, Madeley. SOURCE: Madeley Matters.

His article for the Post offers a summary of the development of the design of the English pub with a strong line of argument: Victorian town pubs were beautiful, offering a bold, glittering contrast to the slum houses around them; but when breweries began to own large estates of their own pubs and then, after World War I, to set up their own architects’ departments, it all went wrong. They became too clean, lacking atmosphere and distinction, as homes came up in quality to meet them.

What’s really interesting to us about this piece, though, is that Merilion offers a considered, balanced, occasionally surprising view of where pubs were at in 1968, at the height of the theme pub craze:

Ask most people and they seem to want atmosphere – the only universal plea – with comfort running a close second. There are of course a few chaps who say that all they want is well-kept beer!

(Note there more evidence of the CAMRA tendency well before CAMRA.)

Nobody actually says they desperately want to drink in a hunting lodge in Harborne, or beer cellar in Bearwood, or a galleon on the Ringway. However, most people do not actively dislike these surroundings, and no doubt a strong case can be made out for their existence. They are surely preferable to the pseudo-traditional Georgian or Tudor chintz tea-room versions.

Despite seeming to stick up for theme pubs to a degree, Merilion goes on to stick the knife in:

This extension of the name of the pub setting the theme for the entire interior decor is a comparatively recent innovation and is being employed extensively where new urban pubs are concerned. Any why should the brewers neglect such a sure-fire idea which is obviously popular with the customers? After all, the opportunities are fantastic – why not a Dr Who space-fiction set, or the labyrinth from Barbarella… Only that all these things are sheer gimmickry, equally suitable for coffee bars, restaurants, night clubs and boutiques. They represent lost opportunities for the daring and exciting use of contemporary methods and materials to maintain the specifically public house atmosphere.

Too many theme pubs were excessively literal, working the theme throughout the whole pub, literally “turning the building into a fake castle, paddock or barn”. This pressure, according to architects and designers he spoke to, came from the breweries, and the over-the-top, over-literal theme elements were sometimes applied to the pub after the fact, rather against the designer’s intent.

None of the new pubs in Birmingham were any good, in his opinion,  failing to achieve a state of “friendly but not freaky”, though he does have a couple of kind words to say about The Outrigger in the city centre where “a good atmosphere exists in the pseudo-galleon (complete with sea-sounds)”.

The Outrigger.
The Outrigger, Birmingham, posted online by ‘Zak’. SOURCE: Birmingham Forum.

Merilion’s argument hereafter is a smart one: putting aside specific Victorian style and method, why shouldn’t a modern pub designer seek to achieve the same essential effects of light, reflection and “glitter” using up-to-date materials? Suburban pubs in the 1960s, he says, have bad lighting — “an all-embracing orange gloom” which fails to provide highs and lows — why not take advantage of modern technology to vary the colour and intensity throughout a pub?

It’s at this point that he comes out with something we could have used a couple of years ago when we were writing 20th Century Pub: a defence of the Chelsea Drugstore.

The Drugstore, as you might know, was Bass Charrington’s trendiest, most self-consciously modern pub, which opened in West London in 1968, and famously appears in A Clockwork Orange as the futuristic hall-of-mirrors shopping boutique where Alex the Droog hangs out.

The Chelsea Drugstore, 1968
The Chelsea Drugstore. SOURCE: RIBA.

Merilion says:

One could dismiss its decor as trendy and fashionable… but nevertheless is has much of the traditional atmosphere, with its glittering air of excitement, vibrant clientele and robust self-expression.

Returning to Birmingham, then under heavy redevelopment, he makes a final plea:

Let us hope that the breweries give the right architects and designers a freer hand to produce exciting and appropriate solutions. Please, not Ye Olde Meate Shoppe, The Town Gaol, and The Sinking Barge.

If you wan to read the entire article it’s available via the British Newspaper Archive here.

In general, the BNA is a service we highly recommend to anyone with an interest in history, nostalgia or British culture; it’s about £80 a year, or alternatively, you can probably access it at your local library or archive.

Guinness Confidential, 1977: Economic Crisis, Quality Problems, Image Issues

In 1977 Guinness commissioned consultant Alan Hedges to look into why sales of the bottled version of the stout were dropping off. His research revealed changes in the beer, and changes in society.

Hedges is, it turns out, something of a legend in the world of market research having written an important book called Tested to Destruction, published in 1974.

We guess from the odd contextual clue that he got the Guinness gig because he had worked for S.H. Benson, an advertising firm that held the Guinness account in the 1960s.

He may well still be around — he was active in the industry in the past decade or two — so maybe he’ll pop up to tell us more if he ever stumbles across this post. (That’s one reason we like to put things like this out into the world.)

This particular item is yet another document from the collection of Guinness paperwork we’re currently sorting through on behalf of its owner. We’re not going to share the whole thing, just highlight some of the most interesting parts.

Continue reading “Guinness Confidential, 1977: Economic Crisis, Quality Problems, Image Issues”

The Mother lode: Attitudes to Beer, 1963

In 1963 Guinness hired Public Attitude Surveys Ltd to compiled research into the attitudes of drinkers towards stout, and the state of the beer market more generally.

The resulting report feels to us like an important document, recording statistics on different types of beer, and different types of drinker, based on gender, social class and attitudes to alcohol.

It’s about Guinness but almost accidentally gives us great insight into the rise of lager, the death of mild, and so on.

Unless we’re mistaken, this is a source that hasn’t previously made its way into the public domain or otherwise been much exploited, though there were some contemporary newspaper reports picking up on its findings. We only have our hands on a copy because it came as part of the collection of Guinness papers we’re sorting through on behalf of the owner.

It begins with a summary of what was learned from previous ‘National Stout Surveys’ carried out in 1952-53 and 1958-59:

Guinness was markedly more dependent on the heavy drinker than Mackeson, the next most successful stout on the market… Recruitment to Guinness was not to any substantial amount from sweet stouts… [And] Guinness was much more dependent on the older drinker – those over 45 – than Mackeson and the other sweet stouts.

This helps us understand what Guinness was worried about: that younger drinkers were turning away from dark, bitter, heavy beers. That’s a problem when your flagship product — more or less your only product — is a dark, bitter, heavy beer.

Graph -- main drink by sex

This is the first big splash from the document. It shows that in the early 1960s women hardly touched draught bitter or mild, and weren’t especially keen on the then fashionable bottled ales either. But lager and stout – two opposite ends of the spectrum you might say – were about equally popular with men and women.

Continue reading “The Mother lode: Attitudes to Beer, 1963”

A Dictionary for Beer Tasting, 1981

Here’s another find from the collection of Guinness-related material we’re currently sorting through: a 1981 dictionary of beer tasting descriptors by American brewing scientist Joseph Owades.

This is fascinating to us because while researching Brew Britannia we spent ages trying to find examples of the kind of tasting notes we now take for granted — horseblanket, pine, all that jazz — and found nothing substantial from before the mid to late 1980s.

This document, however, lists almost 80 different taste descriptors with brief notes on their meaning. Here are a few sample entries:

cellary — usually an odor, but sometimes also a taste, produced by micro-organisms which live mainly in wood, and found in beers which have been kept in such wooden tanks or barrels. Also found in beers which have not been in contact with wood, but with such micro-organisms; also musty or woody.

flowery — an odor which resembles a mixed bouquet of flowers, usually sweet and pleasant; most probably derived from hops.

skunky — an odor, resembling closely that emitted by a skunk, produced only when beer in a clear bottle is exposed to visible light. The use of brown glass protects from this effect.

It looks as if this particular copy, typed and photocopied on eight sides of A4, was a handout at some kind of conference held at the Harvard Club in New York City in November 1981 and sponsored by Anchor Brewing of San Francisco, and All About Beer magazine.

Owades is an interesting figure, best known as the inventor of light lager, and of contract brewing as we know it today. The dictionary was published under the flag of his beer consultancy firm, The Center for Brewing Studies.

Though the document is obscure (scarcely a passing mention exists online) we can’t help but suspect that some key players — writers and brewers on both sides of the Atlantic — acquired copies, and were inspired by the language employed.

The Beer of the Future, 1924

More lager, daintier glassware, beer at the dinner table… These were some of the predictions made by  brewing scientist Herbert Lloyd Hind in a talk given to a meeting of Scottish brewers on Burns Day 1924.

We came across this paper while researching our big two-parter and thought it deserved a bit of attention in its own right.

As everyone knows, making predictions is a mug’s game, but Mr Hind, as you’ll see, did pretty well.

Detail from a Whitbread advertisement, 1937, showing beer with food.

1. Beer must get prettier

“The days are past when meals could be eaten from wooden bowls, and the days of the old pint pot are numbered. There was nothing like the pewter pot when it was necessary to hide the drink from the eye to make its consumption possible. Developing taste demands that food be served with greater delicacy, and that beer be offered in shining glass which sets off its attractive sparkle and condition to the utmost, and under conditions in which it has nothing to suffer when compared to champagne, or dark red wine.”

This might seem like a pre-echo of the so-called ‘winification of beer’ — more an aspiration than a reflection of reality — but think about how beer has been presented in the last century: glass became the norm, and even quite ordinary commodity beers have their own branded glassware and prescribed pouring methods.

Hind goes on to argue that British beer suffers in beauty contests because it lacks the substantial, stable foam of the Continental rivals. Which brings us to…

1937 advertisement for Barclay Perkins lager.
2. More lager, and a drift away from ale

In this country beer drinkers have become so wedded to the flavour of top fermentation beer that they prefer it, and in many cases express dislike for lager. The great majority, however, of those who decry lager have never tasted it as it should be, and generally say they do not like such thin stuff, ignoring the fact that such a description does not apply to good lager any more than it does to good English beer.

Hind was cautious on lager but essentially called it: tastes can change, he argued — British drinkers had already ditched “that acid beer that used to have a great sale in several districts” — and Denmark was an example of a country similar in climate to Britain where lager had ousted top-fermented beer.

In fact, he pointed out, Britain was the oddity in having not embraced lager, and that perhaps the decrease in beer consumption in Britain could be put down to the fact that brewers weren’t giving people beer they wanted to drink:

[Those] countries showing an increase [in beer consumption] were all lager-drinking countries, or countries where lager was gradually ousting top fermentation beers. If there is anything in this argument it must follow that lager is better than ale

Oof!

He certainly got this right, anyway: Britain did eventually embrace lager, and in a big way. Only now in the 21st century is there any evidence of re-balancing.

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

3. Cleaner, more stable beer

Typical characteristics of British beers are their hop aroma and the flavours produced by secondary fermentation. Chilling, filtration and pasteurisation tend to remove these very much-desired flavours, so that chilled and filtered beer generally suffers in comparison with naturally conditioned beer.

This is particularly astute and sets up a debate that would dominate the following century: how do we retain the essential character of British beer while also taming it for ease of production, distribution and dispense?

Hind goes on to argue that the British beer ought to be fermented with pure yeast strains — that it was time to do away with the superstition and sentiment around English brewing yeast:

[The] sweeping condemnation some times passed on any suggestion to adapt pure yeast to English conditions is not justified. The only trials I know of were made many years ago and in connection with beers whose distinctive palate depended on a secondary fermentation. This distinctive Burton flavour I have seen produced in beers as different from normal Burton beers as bottom-fermented stout by an inoculation in the bottle of pure cultures of Bretannomyces, as its discoverer, Clausen, called the particular Torula employed. Conditions are now entirely altered. Secondary fermentation in far the greater number of breweries is a thing of the past, and the desideratum now is to prevent the development of secondary yeast. Under conditions such as these, surely it is time to reopen the investigation and endeavour to put fermentation on a sounder and more certain basis.

This point of view certainly won out in the industry but, of course, drinkers did notice when Adnams changed and Boddington’s lost its complexity.

"Traditional Country Ales" window livery.

4. Traditional English methods don’t work for session ales

I think it will be admitted on all hands that the typical English naturally matured pale ales left very little to be desired. They had a delightful appetising flavour, and poured from the bottle with beautiful appearance and condition. The cask beers of similar type were also excellent, but lower gravities have been forced upon us, and the tendency towards a lighter kind of beer seems so definite that it is hardly likely that there will be any return to the old style. Endeavours to brew these lighter beers on the old lines are not altogether a success, as is evidenced by the amount of beer on the market lacking in brilliance or condition.

This is some controversial stuff, or at least seems that way from this side of the real ale revolution of the 1970s.

It’s become a point of faith that British brewing methods are particularly well suited to producing low ABV beers, adding complexity to make up for the lack of oomph.

The answer to this contradiction — the desire for beers to be both lighter and cleaner — is, Hind argues, to adopt lager brewing methods even for beers that aren’t presented as lager.

Which is exactly what, for example, Thornbridge does, using lager yeast for its packaged products and traditional ale yeast for casks. (At least this is what we think Rob Lovatt, Thornbridge head brewer, told us in a pub about four years ago.)

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

5. Keg!

Even though our methods of manufacture were ideal, there is no possibility of the invariable appearance of the beer in the customer’s glass in condition that will satisfy a connoisseur, or even a man with ordinary standards of taste and perception. The methods of retail are hopelessly out of date. Though the brewers do all that is humanly possible, there are all too many chances of the beer being ruined in the publican’s cellar or at the bar… While bars are fitted with the usual types of pumps, and unlimited air is allowed to pass into casks, flattening and destroying the flavour of the beer, how can it be expected that beer will serve well to the end of the cask ? The possibilities which are offered in this direction by compressed CO2 collected in the brewery have hardly been explored at all in this country…

He really nailed this one.

Almost a hundred years later the same conversation is still going, keg bitter having arrived then retreated, while gas remains the key flashpoint in Britain’s beer culture wars.

It’s all about quality, everyone agrees, and cask ale at point of service doesn’t always make a good showing for itself. “Look after it better!” say the purists; “Reduce the opportunity for user error!” answer the pragmatists.

Meanwhile, most people carry on drinking lager, oblivious and uninterested.

* * *

Hind’s predictions are interesting because they’re not outlandish — robot bartenders! Powdered beer! — but careful, based on observation, and on a knowledge of things already afoot in the beer industry in the UK, and especially abroad.

It would be interesting to read similar papers from brewers active in 2018.