Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about beer and pubs

Some questions about beer come up time and again and most of them have already been answered, somewhere. This page is designed to provide straightforward, to-the-point summaries with links to further reading on our blog and elsewhere.

If there’s a question you want answered, email us and we’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, we hope you’ll find this round-up useful.

Pub history

Q. Which was the first Wetherspoon pub?
A. Tim Martin bought his first pub, Marler’s Bar, in 1979, and renamed it as Martin’s. He changed its name again to J.D. Wetherspoon in 1980. The next in the chain were Dick’s Bar in Crouch End (1981) and J.J. Moon’s in Holloway (1982).
Further reading: our book 20th Century Pub.

Q. When did pubs start serving food? 
A. The main point here is that food in pubs isn’t a new thing. Inns and taverns (specific sub-types of pub) have served food for centuries and snacks were available in all sorts of pubs in the 19th century. Pub guides from the 1960s include hundreds of pubs with full menus and decent food. The term ‘pub grub’ emerged in the 1960s. The Eagle in Farringdon, London, is generally recognised as the first modern gastropub; the earliest use of that term was by Jonathan Meades in 1995.
Further reading: our book 20th Century Pub; ‘What’s the history of bar snacks?’.

Q. What’s the oldest pub in England?
It’s really hard to say but most of those that make this claim are basically fibbing. The George Inn at Norton St Philip, Somerset, is a convincing contender, though, having been trading since the late 14th century.
Further reading: Licensed to Sell, Brandwood, Dawson and Slaughter, 2005, rev.2011; and this more detailed blog post.

Beer tasting

Q. Can I drink this bottle of beer I found in a junk shop?
A. You can. It probably won’t do you any harm – but if it smells terrible or has mould floating in it, probably best not to drink it. If you do drink it, be prepared for it to taste bad: most beers don’t improve with age.
Further reading: ‘How long do vintage beers keep?’

Q. Is this old bottle of beer I’ve got worth anything?
A. Probably not, especially if it’s a Jubilee or Royal Wedding beer – those were produced in huge numbers and are easily found. They also (see above) probably taste terrible after all these years. Bottles of Thomas Hardy Ale, Courage Imperial Stout and some other specific brands might be worth a few quid but think tens of pounds, not hundreds.

Q. Is cask better than keg? If so, why?
A. On the whole, we prefer cask to keg, but it’s a matter of personal taste. We find that a given beer will taste better in optimum cask condition will usually taste more complex and interesting than the same beer served from a keg. This might be because cask conditioning creates a softer carbonation with smaller bubbles. Or it might just be the power of suggestion, the value of tradition, self-delusion…
Further reading: ‘A German view on extraneous CO2’, Ed Wray.

Beer styles

Q.What was the first IPA?
Hodgson of Bow was exporting pale ale to India from at least 1793 and in 1817 another brewery in the same part of London, W.A. Brown’s Imperial Brewery, brewed ‘Pale Ale prepared for the East and West India Climate‘. The earliest known use of the phrase ‘India pale ale’ was 1829.
Source: Martyn Cornell.

Q. What’s the difference between porter and stout? 
A. Historically speaking, nothing: stout is to porter what best bitter is to bitter – a heftier version of the same style. Modern home-brewing competition guidelines set specific parameters but remember, those aren’t rules. And if a brewer makes both a porter and a stout they’ll usually, in our experience, make the stout denser and more bitter.
Further reading: ‘So what IS the difference between porter and stout?’, Martyn Cornell, 2008; BJCP style guidelines, 2015.

Q. Are dark beers stronger than light beers? Are they more bitter?
A. There is no connection between the colour of a beer and its strength. Very pale beers can be super strong, like Duvel, and dark beers can be very weak, like mild. Nor are dark beers necessarily more bitter, although some, such as many stouts, use roasted malts to add colour and flavour which can read as harsh.

Q. Is Guinness actually good for you? 
A. Stout was promoted as nutritious in the 20th century and the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ first appeared in 1929. Guinness might feel nourishing because of its heavy mouthfeel but doesn’t have notably more calories or food value than any other beer.

Beer history

Q. What was the first kegged craft (craft keg) beer in the UK?
A. Lots of beers have a reasonable claim. A case can be made for Watney’s Red Barrel (1931), Draught Guinness (1958), Newquay Steam (1987), Packhorse lagers (1990), Freedom Lager (1995) and others.
Further reading: ‘What was the first kegged craft beer?’

Q. Which was the first microbewery?
A. There are multiple candidates. Traquair House was an old brewery that restarted in 1965. Selby Brewery re-opened in 1972 with a new CAMRA-friendly real ale approach. Westbury Ales at the Miners Arms, Priddy, Somerset, was the first completely new brewery of the post-war period, in 1973. The Litchborough Brewery, which commenced brewing in 1974, was perhaps the most influential, and its founder, Bill Urquhart, is often described as the father of microbrewing.
Further reading: our book Brew Britannia and this blog post.

Branding and marketing

Q. When were beer mats invented and when did they become common in the UK?
A. Cardboard (pulp) beer mats were invented in Germany in the 1880s. The first branded beer mats came to Britain in the 1920s. They became really common in pubs after World War II.
Further reading: ‘When did beer mats come in?’

Q. When did branded pub mirrors become a thing?
The first branded pub mirrors seem to have appeared in the 1850s and 1860s when industrial glass-cutting techniques were developed.  Hand-painted mirrors came next. Mass-produced mirrors advertising breweries really took off from the 1890s, the most notable producer being the Brilliant Sign Company, established on Gray’s Inn Road, London, in 1893.
Further reading: ‘What’s the story of branded pub mirrors?’

Q. When did branded glassware first emerge?
A. Though there are early outliers, the practice of putting brewery logos on beer glasses seems to have  become popular in Continental Europe at around the turn of the 20th century, in the US in the 1930s and not until the 1960s in the UK.
Further reading: ‘Who started branding glassware and why?’

Q. When were pump-clips invented?
A. Pub historian Geoff Brandwood is researching the history of pump-clips and the earliest he has found, as of July 2020, is from 1933. Ron Pattinson has seen mention of them in a Barclay Perkins magazine from c.1937. As with beer mats, their usage didn’t become widespread until the 1950s and 60s when national breweries had big brands to advertise. The big enamel and brass ones we tend to think of as typical didn’t turn up until the 1980s and 90s.
Further reading: ‘Boddington’s pump-clips 1963’.

Q. Why are the ends of beer casks painted red?
A. In the 19th century, casks of different types of beer were painted different colours to make it easier to tell them apart at a glance. In the 20th century, as wooden casks became less common, red just became the default colour. Different breweries and coopers use different colours as a matter of taste.
Further reading: ‘Why are cask-ends painted red?’