Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is something that only really dawned on us recently as, taking an interest in the history of Bristol pubs as we do, we kept coming across references to Berni Inns in old guidebooks and local histories:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tavern Public. Here find beautifully served Wadworth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Worthington E in peak condition — both on handpumps. Sandwiches at reasonable prices also available. Quite small friendly bar with comfortable seats, thick carpet and jovial old locals.

Insofar as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imagined. For decades they were the punchline to jokes about the tackiness of aspirational lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bringing prawn cocktail and black forest gateau to the masses. For example, here’s a song from Victoria Wood’s 2011 musical That Day We Sang which hits all the familiar references:

There are no shortage of articles summarising the history of the Berni Inn chain but — this one by Bristol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for example. The story is also covered, with some lovely archive footage, in this 2015 edition of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a precis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obituaries of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respectively, and various other sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bardi near Parma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up primarily by his mother because his father was abroad in South Wales running temperance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the family business in the UK. He was soon joined by his brothers, Aldo, born 1909, and Carlo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Catering Review, March 1968, via Facebook.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inheritance from their mother to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was successful enough to fund expansion into Plymouth and Bristol.

During World War II Frank and Carlo were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British passport, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmarket cocktail bar and restaurant in Bristol. Tom Jaine suggests in his obituary of Frank Berni that they might have got the money to fund this bold move from reparation payments for Blitz damage to their pre-war properties which just happened to be in the most heavily bombed cities in the West Country.

Like motel entrepreneur Graham Lyon the Bernis sensed that there were interesting things going on in America that British people, exhausted and bored by wartime austerity, might be ready to welcome.

Frank Berni visited the US in the early 1950s and came away inspired by American steak bars which made money by carefully controlling margins while maintaining the appearance of generosity and good value. He was also impressed by the consistency of chain restaurants which were capable of serving identical steak meals in identical surroundings anywhere in the US.

When meat rationing ended in Britain in 1954, they pounced, taking on The Rummer, a historic pub in central Bristol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bristol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ackland offers some details we’ve not come across elsewhere:

The Rummer is a rabbit warren of a place with cellar bars and rooms large and small as well as a history as an inn which dates back to the 13th century. They called in a clever designer, Alex Waugh, who created several restaurants and bars under one roof and cultivated an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shabby look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmosphere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Bernis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cobwebs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

“The Rummer was the protoype”, she writes; “The Revolution quickly followed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bristol by 1964, clustered around the city centre.

The Berni Inn model seemed to answer a need for accessible luxury. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophisticated and posh British people brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the other hand, everything about The Rummer was designed to make eating out unintimidating.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they hermit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like character, and called themselves Inns, gave people something to latch on to. (See also: gastropubs.)

Then there was what Martin Wainwright called “the crucial role played by chips as a bridge between traditional fare and the glamorous… world of sirloin and black forest gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped potatoes’ on the menu.)

Finally, there was the simplicity of the offer as summarised by Mary Ackland:

The brothers planned down to the last detail. They were determined that every last worry about eating out would be removed… The fixed-price, limited item menu ensured that customers knew exactly how much they would be paying. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The limited menu wasn’t only easy for customers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with minimal equipment by interchangeable staff using a meticulous manual.

A menu.
SOURCE: Ronnie Hughes/A Sense of Place.

The chain went nationwide until there were 147 branches all over the country, all following the same formula. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Metropolitan in 1970. The chain continued to operate until the 1990s when Whitbread bought 115 Berni Inns and, deciding that the brand was effectively dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Knowing a bit about the Bernification of Bristol helps makes sense of the 21st century pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, historic, potentially brilliant pubs are apparently still recovering from their long stretches as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone recommend The Rummer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llandoger Trow, though it has its charms, is essentially the bar and breakfast lounge for a Premier Inn.

It goes without saying that we’d like to hear your memories of Berni Inns but especially the extent to which you recall them feeling like pubs, or otherwise.

Reading the descriptions of plush furniture, wooden tables, and chips with everything, we can’t help but wonder if most pubs aren’t Bernified in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an advertisement for Berni Inns in Bristol on the back of the programme for the Bristol 600 Exhibition published in 1973.

While We’re Away: Guinness in the Archives

We know blogs are ephemeral and that you’re just supposed to let a post disappear once it’s had its moment but we’ve got lots in the archive that we reckon newer readers might have missed. So, while we’re away on holiday, we thought we’d resurface a few bits on Guinness.

First, a big one, and not a blog post: for All About Beer back in June 2016 we pondered on how Guinness has managed to lose its edge, from being the go-to choice for discerning drinkers to the subject of scorn. After a lot of picking and digging, we reckon we managed to work it out:

Beers that are around for a long time often come to be perceived as Not What They Used to Be (see also Pilsner Urquell, for example). Sometimes that is down to jaded palates, or is the result of a counter-cultural bias against big brands and big business. Both of those might apply to Guinness but there is also objective evidence of a drop in quality, or at least of essential changes to the product…. Guinness has tended to be secretive about process, recipes and ingredients but we do know, for example, that the temperature of draught Guinness dropped significantly from about 1988 onward, falling from a typical 12 degrees Celsius to a target of 7 degrees. This is one thing that caused those drinkers of traditional cask-conditioned ale who had regarded draught Guinness as the one tolerable keg beer to turn against it.


1970s photograph of two men in horn-rimmed glasses inspecting beer.
Tommy Marling takes the temperature of draught Guinness watched by Mr Bill Steggle, licensee of the Cock at Headley near Epsom.

Here on the blog we also looked into what old in-house magazines from Guinness’s London brewery at Park Royal can tell us about the roll-out of the draught Guinness we know today:

“In 1946 when old-stagers with us now were breaking in their 32″ bottom demob suits our metal cask department was formed and managed by E.J. Griffiths. His assistant was Jack Moore now regional manager in Leeds. Even in 1946 the houses which specialised in draught Guinness such as Mooneys and Wards were being supplied from Park Royal ‘in the wood’. Don’t forget, we still had a cooperage and there was no tanker delivery.”


A sardine/sild sandwich.

Beyond beer, Guinness also had a huge impact on the birth of ‘pub grub’, as readers of 20th Century Pub will know. Here, from November 2016, is our filleting of Guinness’s 1961 recipe book for publicans, which was published as part of the brewery’s drive to get more food into pubs:

[In] October 1962, the newly-formed Snack Demonstration Team hit the road in [a] fabulous Mystery-Machine-alike [van]… Four days a week for the latter part of that year, lecturer Jo Shellard (an actor turned caterer) and his assistant Clint Antell toured the North West of England (where pub food was particularly wanting, we assume) speaking to groups of publicans ‘and their wives’.


And there’s lots more, if you want it:

GALLERY: Malt, 1955-1969

‘The Other Fellow’s Job No. 10: The Maltster’ by Richard HiltonHouse of Whitbread, Spring 1955, with photographs by P.M. Goodchild.

“In these modern times, when machinery has largely replaced the hands of the craftsman, one might think that the ingredients of beer are largely subjected to numerous mechanical processes in the course of their evolution. And many of them are — but the malting process is one that has stood the test of time, and remains the secret of the craftsman who transforms the corns of barley into that most valuable ingredient of all — malt.”

A man with a specially designed wheelbarrow.
“C. McCabe carries the barley in a specially designed malt barrow.”

“When a new load of barley arrives at the maltings, the first men to handle it are the granary hands. It is their job to dry the barley to about 12 per cent of moisture so that it can be kept in bulk without deterioriation; next, they clean and ‘screen’ it to extract the small or broken grains… Typical of the granary hand at the Whitbread maltings in East Dereham in Norfolk is Chris McCabe. An Irishman, 64-year-old McCabe started with Whitbread’s eleven years ago, and takes great pride in his work…. Before he came to East Dereham he worked in large maltings in Ireland.”

A man in flat cap and overalls.
“As foreman of the East side of the Dereham maltings, Walter Lambert has many responsibilities. Here, he is adjusting the oil burner on one of the barley kilns.”

Continue reading “GALLERY: Malt, 1955-1969”

Q&A: Electric Beer Pumps

We like it when people ask us questions. Yesterday, we got this one from Simon Briercliffe:

These days, hand-pulls are the standard symbol of Proper Real Aleness, but in the 1970s measured electric dispense (push the button once for a half, twice for a full pint) were common enough, especially in the north, to warrant a diagram and description in multiple editions of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, first published in paperback form in 1974. The main image above is from the 1976 edition and is accompanied by text saying: “Taps operated by little levers or push-buttons can, however, work either by electricity or CO2 pressure and the only way to tell the difference is to pay your money and taste the stuff in your glass.”

Working back through a selection of how-to-run-a-pub guides in our library we dug up this reference from James H. Coombs’s 1965 book Bar Service: “For some time beer meters have been installed throughout the country and their operation takes all the guesswork out of drawing beer.” (We filleted that book in two posts here and here.) That helps narrow the search but left us mildly dissatisfied — surely there must be some more concrete dates we can pin down?

Well, here’s the lower boundary: it would seem that in 1948 when J.W. Scott delivered his paper ‘From Cask to Consumer’ (PDF) to a meeting of the London section of the Institute of Brewing, reliable beer dispense meters were not widely available on the UK market. He had designed his own which, while intended to deliver half a pint at a time, was not precise:

Mr H.G. SPILLANE asked whether it was possible for the author’s dispense to be regulated to serve half-pints of mixed beers… Mr SCOTT replied…. [that the] machine he had described did not give a definite measure, thought it was attempted to approach it closely; he could then give a head, or could fill the glass right to the top by means of the topping-up or agitating device. It was almost impossible to design a machine to give a precise measure because of the varying condition in the beer, which covered a fairly wide range when a vent peg was used.

Scanning more closely between those dates we find an article in the December 1955 edition of trade magazine A Monthly Bulletin on short measures:

From time to time various methods of serving draught beer [cask ale] without overspill have been propounded. One was the adoption of a dispenser which would measure out exactly ten ounces in oversized glasses. Such a device would have to be easy to clean, quick to operate, simple to use and maintain. So far as is known, no machine has yet been invented that could be used with beer engines or in drawing beer from the wood. It is possible to adjust a beer engine to deliver an exact half-pint with one even and continuous pull. That is, in favourable conditions; in practice, to use a beer engine as a measuring device would depend too much on the care and skill of the operator.

There are tantalising mentions throughout the 1950s, locked behind paywalls and copyright barriers, of Mills Electric Beer Engines. If anyone can tell us more about that, from sources un-Google-able, we’d be grateful. Here’s a (fairly useless) morsel we did find in a 1957 edition of the Morecambe Guardian from 1957, via the British Newspaper Archive:

Mills Electric Beer Engine advertisement.

It’s not clear from that whether the Mills device was merely an electric pump, not necessarily metered, or something more sophisticated.

One other important date would seem to be 1963 when a new Weights and Measures Act came into force. Before this, as we understand it, short or long measures of alcoholic drinks weren’t actually illegal, merely frowned upon. Suddenly, publicans were obliged to provide exactly a half pint or full pint or risk prosecution. Speaking in the House of Commons in July 1966 the Minister for the Board of Trade, George Darling MP, described a proposed amendment to the Act to allow for the use of meters (our emphasis):

What the Order does is to recognise approved new appliances for measuring beer and cider in public houses and bars of hotels which have come into use generally since the Act was passed…. Hon. Members who take a modest glass of beer or cider occasionally will have seen these new devices in operation. They usually have the appearance of a glass or transparent plastic cylinder which, when a tap is turned or a lever pulled, fills up with beer or cider to a mark on the cylinder and then empties that amount into a glass or mug.

At the other end of the timeline, digging around highlighted what might be another important moment: Gaskell & Chambers, manufacturers of beer engines since the 19th century and the dominant name in beer dispense equipment, announced plans to market their new beer metering system in the company statement for 1966-67, published in May 1967. Here’s some blurb from an accompanying advertorial published in the Birmingham Daily Post on 4 May 1967:

Changes in the physical handling of beer at the point of sale have been helped along by Gaskell & Chambers…. The old manual beer engine which has for so long typified the English hostelry is slowly yielding ground to neatly styled dispense taps in decorative housings, and to beer meters.

So the guess in Simon’s original Tweet doesn’t look far off the mark: 1963-1967 is when metered dispense really took off.

Rigby’s Bier Keller, Liverpool, 1968

In the 1960s and 70s German-style beer cellars were all the rage in Britain popping up everywhere from Blackpool to central London, and Liverpool did not miss out on the trend.

We’ve touched on this subject a few times including in an article on theme pubs for CAMRA last year and in 20th Century Pub. Just recently we wrote a substantial article, also for CAMRA, which we expect to appear in the next issue of BEER magazine. This post, however, zooms in one one one example via an article in the in-house magazine of the Tetley Walker brewery group for autumn 1969.

Cover of the magazine.

Rigby’s on Dale Street is a famous Liverpool pub now run by Okell’s of the Isle of Man. In 1968, however, it was part of the Allied Breweries empire managed under as part of the Walker Cain sub-group. Just before Christmas that year Rigby’s newest feature, a Bierkeller, was unveiled in the low-beamed cellar:

Much of the character of the keller was already there, for the old cellars of Rigby’s still have their ancient flagstone floors, original cast iron stanchions and stone block walls… To this existing setting were added girls in traditional Bavarian costume to serve the drinks, long beech tables and benches — four tons of timber went into their making — German poster on the walls and two doors marked Damen and Herren.

The Keller

It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously breweries took this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed to be a sincere effort to evoke a German atmosphere — don’t forget, many British drinkers at this point had actually been to Germany thanks to the war and the subsequent cold war — while others were… less so. Rigby’s was certainly an example of the former perhaps because Liverpool in particular had strong German connections (think of the Beatles in Hamburg) and a fairly substantial reverse traffic with enough Germans in Liverpool to warrant their own church from 1960. There was also a permanent German consulate and it was the commercial attache, H.C. von Herwarth, who opened Rigby’s Bierkeller and “drew the first stein of lager”.

Revellers.
Opening night at Rigby’s Bierkeller. Those aren’t Bavarian hats.

But Rigby’s German-flavoured venture had another advantage: the licensee was one John Burchardt:

Mr Burchardt came to England as a prisoner of war in 1946. He worked on farms in this country and he liked living here so much that when he was released and was given the option of returning to his country…. he decided to come back and take a civilian job…. He married an English girl and Mr and Mrs Burchardt have a family of four boys.

A family photograph.
The Burchardts.

For once, we have been able to gather a bit more biographical information about the nameless spouse: Mrs Burchardt was called Edith and was born in Wales in 1932. The same source tells us that John was actually called Werner and was born in Dortmund but perhaps grew up in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) which might be why he didn’t want to go home. And another perhaps: he may have ended up in Liverpool because of family connections as one Otto Burchardt was appointed consul to the King of Prussia in Liverpool in 1841 and was buried there when he died in 1882.

But, back to pubs: John Burchardt told the reporter for TW magazine that he didn’t see much difference between running a Bavarian Bierkeller and an English pub like the one upstairs. Here’s the public bar in a shot taken, we think, from just about exactly where we sat when we visited in 2016:

Pub interior

We don’t know yet what became of Rigby’s Bierkeller but, based on our research into others, we’d guess it slowly went downmarket and became less German before folding in the late 1970s. (The standard pattern.)

But if you know otherwise, or remember drinking there during its Germanicised phase, do comment below or drop us a line.