The snob quality of keg bitter and lager, 1966

It can be hard to get into the headspace of people in the past but here’s a nugget that reveals attitudes to different types of beer, and different measures, in the mid-1960s.

It’s a let­ter by H.C.G. Sloane to A Month­ly Bul­letin, a brew­ing trade pub­li­ca­tion, pub­lished in June 1966:

In this age of alleged democ­ra­cy and an appar­ent ten­den­cy to throw con­ven­tion to the winds, it is sur­pris­ing to hear that two cus­tomers din­ing in an old hotel restau­rant were refused “two pints of best bit­ter”. Pints of bit­ter were not served because they “low­ered the tone” of the hotel.

So far, so famil­iar – as we cov­ered in Brew Bri­tan­nia, refusal to serve pints has become embed­ded as an indi­ca­tor of an estab­lish­ment that wish­es to set itself apart from, and of course above, the bog stan­dard booz­er. Bris­tol has a cou­ple of such places.

It seems that we must come to terms with the fact that, rather than becom­ing anachro­nisms, pet­ty snob­bery and the sta­tus sym­bol may yet extend and widen the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the absurd.

Well, it’s true that beer has got com­pli­cat­ed with all those tribes and sym­bols and laws of eti­quette.

Beer will, if this hap­pens, prob­a­bly be asso­ci­at­ed only with shab­by tap­rooms, cloth caps, and news­pa­per-wrapped fish and chips. Already one is begin­ning to feel less ple­beian when ask­ing for “keg” rather than “bit­ter”; or a lager instead of a light ale. It sounds nicer, some­how, and more sophis­ti­cat­ed.

This is some­thing we keep com­ing back to – how did lager go from being, in 1966, the classy prod­uct you ordered when you felt a lit­tle fan­cy to, by the late 1980s, riot fuel?

And keg as the upmar­ket choice… That still rings true, sort of, though IPA or ‘craft lager’ are what peo­ple actu­al­ly ask for.

The New Age bar­tender may look askance should one inad­ver­tent­ly demand a glass of mild instead of a beaker of bland.

No, the cor­rect term is “dark ale”.

A “mixed” may in future be called a blend.

Cor­rect.

An igno­rant saloon bar cus­tomer might even ostracised (or banned from using the premis­es) should he refer to his favourite tip­ple as brown ale – once the colour has changed to beige.

Wrong – instead, it’s almost extinct, and two rare sur­vivors are ordered by brand name.

Over­all, Sloane got it right – though nev­er entire­ly as class­less and sim­ple as some roman­tics would have you believe, beer has become increas­ing­ly com­plex, strat­i­fied and laden with mean­ing.

But things have also been pret­ty well swirled about, too.

Is a dim­ple mug of Black Sheep Bit­ter posh, or ple­beian? It depends where you drink it and whether it’s accom­pa­ny­ing a pack­et of scratch­ings or a plate of gnoc­chi.

A peek behind the scenes: why are we sud­den­ly look­ing at A Month­ly Bul­letin again? Because we had a real­ly thor­ough tidy up of what we jok­ing­ly call The Arthur Mil­lard Memo­r­i­al Library – that is, our box­room – and hav­ing got rid of a load of books and organ­ised the rest, we’ve redis­cov­ered lots of stuff that we for­got we had. It’s easy to dip into some­thing before bed or in the morn­ing before work and AMB in par­tic­u­lar is espe­cial­ly dip­pable.

Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which  seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.

Writ­ten by one A. Bev­er­ley of 55 Har­ring­ton Avenue, Black­pool, the let­ter is actu­al­ly a response to anoth­er item of cor­re­spon­dence that appeared in “a nation­al news­pa­per”. Though they quote large chunks, Bev­er­ley does­n’t give the spe­cif­ic source and we can’t find a match in the GuardianTimes or Mir­ror.

Here’s Bev­er­ley’s sum­ma­ry, though:

In com­plain­ing that “our pubs are becom­ing too posh” [they assert] that it is “vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a man in over­alls to get a hot din­ner in the cen­tre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many coun­try pub­lic hous­es are attract­ing cus­tomers from towns at mid-day, offer­ing “busi­ness lunch­es” and pro­vid­ing plen­ty of space for park­ing motor cars. Where is the work­ing man in his work­ing clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?

This line might seem sur­pris­ing if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an inven­tion of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is some­how inher­ent­ly un-work­ing-class. But if you’ve read the chap­ter on gas­trop­ubs in 20th Cen­tu­ry Pub, you’ll know oth­er­wise.

But, any­way, Bev­er­ley is hav­ing none of it:

This type of com­ment ignores the real­i­ties of 1964 cater­ing. If the char­ac­ter of our pubs is chang­ing with the times, it is rea­son­able to assume, too, that the same can be said of the cus­tomers. The num­ber of cus­tomers who go into bars in over­alls at any time is dwin­dling. But the num­ber of cus­tomers who, after work­ing hours, change into well-cut suits to go into pub­lic hous­es with their wives or girl friends is increas­ing. These female com­pan­ions not unnat­u­ral­ly pre­fer the com­fort and ameni­ties of a mod­ern, taste­ful­ly appoint­ed bar rather than sur­round­ings that are drea­ry and out­mod­ed.

(Isn’t CAM­RA’s nation­al inven­to­ry essen­tial­ly the Drea­ry and Out­mod­ed Pub Guide?)

Bev­er­ley’s argu­ment is not only that “men in over­alls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their suc­ces­sors, “who wear… pro­tec­tive cloth­ing at work”, prob­a­bly earned as much as, or more than, white-col­lar work­ers.

With the growth of automa­tion and the short­en­ing of the work­ing week, the over­all and boil­er suit may dis­ap­pear entire­ly, and the well-appoint­ed, well-warmed pub or inn, pro­vid­ing tasty meals and cor­rect­ly served drinks, should estab­lish itself yet more firm­ly in the design for a life offer­ing greater peri­od of leisure.

The punch­line to all this is, we think, quite fun­ny: the real prob­lem, Bev­er­ley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspi­ra­tional work­ing class­es had­n’t quite learned how to behave.

It is only hoped that, as high­er stan­dards are called for and met, appro­pri­ate improve­ments in human behav­iour also will devel­op. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have dif­fi­cul­ty in believ­ing that change is for the good when expen­sive car­pets and table-tops are dam­aged by cig­a­rette burns. To be tru­ly ben­e­fi­cial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of respon­si­bil­i­ty and sense of val­ues into the minds of those who are usu­al­ly the most insis­tent and vocal in their demands for lux­u­ry in the “local”.

It’s inter­est­ing to read this along­side those 1960s Bats­ford guides with all their talk of mut­ton cur­ry and beef fon­due, and oth­er accounts of the com­ing pub car­pets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, lit­er­a­ture, film, some­thing of a moment as the tra­di­tion­al indi­ca­tors of class got jum­bled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, peo­ple are still com­plain­ing about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the dis­ap­pear­ance of the car­pet in favour of bare boards is a key indi­ca­tor of com­ing posh­ness.

And the objec­tion seems to be less about class than atti­tude: pubs should be infor­mal, unguard­ed, live­ly and spon­ta­neous, not com­posed, curat­ed or man­nered.

We got our col­lec­tion of edi­tions of A Month­ly Bul­letin from Mar­tyn Cor­nell who kind­ly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.