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.

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.

A Vicious Circle for Keg Bitter in the 1970s

Younger's Tartan beer mat.

In the early 1970s no-one was buying Younger’s Tartan keg bitter which meant it kept sitting around in pubs until it went bad. The brewery’s response? Mix it it back in and send it out again.

Good Company by Berry Ritchie.This sto­ry leapt out at us from the pages of a new acqui­si­tion for our library, Good Com­pa­ny: the sto­ry of Scot­tish & New­cas­tle, writ­ten by Berry Ritchie and pub­lished in 1999. As is the case with many brew­ery offi­cial his­to­ries the most inter­est­ing stuff isn’t the wigs and geneal­o­gy in the open­ing chap­ters, it’s the mate­r­i­al on the post-WWII peri­od. That’s because there were peo­ple around who remem­bered the events well but at the same time were no longer oblig­ed to toe a cor­po­rate line because they were retired; and plen­ty of sur­viv­ing paper­work, too. This pas­sage, cov­er­ing a vague peri­od from around 1970 until the mid­dle of the decade, seems remark­ably frank:

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Tar­tan turned out to be less than robust. Com­pared to Eng­lish bit­ters, it was on the sweet side; the post-war baby-boomers to whom [board mem­ber Tim] Lewis had appealed so suc­cess­ful­ly liked this to begin with, but as their palates matured, they switched back to more tra­di­tion­al south­ern bit­ters. The big swal­low­ers in the Mid­lands were nev­er keen; Scot­tish & New­castle’s sales­men made huge efforts to get its kegs into the large work­ing-men’s clubs  in and around Birm­ing­ham, only to see them thrown out again after a month or so.

Worse than that, falling sales result­ed in many tapped kegs being left on sale for too long, so their con­tents went off. That meant returns, which had to be sent all the way back to Edin­burgh, because that was where Cus­toms and Excise checked they were were bad enough to war­rant a refund of duty. If not, the reject­ed beer had to be reblend­ed, which did noth­ing for the flavour of the new brews. So much returned Tar­tan had to be recy­cled that it began to affect the rep­u­ta­tion of the group’s pre­mi­um beers.

Isn’t it amaz­ing that this, which reads like CAMRA pro­pa­gan­da, is from a brew­ery spon­sored pub­li­ca­tion? It’s fun­ny to think, too, that ‘it’s all slops’ was for so long a stan­dard crit­i­cism of cask ale, and mild in par­tic­u­lar, when in fact the sup­pos­ed­ly clean, space-age keg bit­ter was sub­ject to just the same com­mer­cial pres­sures.

When peo­ple talk about the dan­ger­ous influ­ence of ‘accoun­tants’ on the qual­i­ty of beer it’s just this kind of thing they have in mind. Why ‘had’?  They could pre­sum­ably have just writ­ten off the duty pay­ments and thrown the bad beer away. The deci­sion to do oth­er­wise seems remark­ably short-ter­mist but per­haps – very like­ly, in fact – at these vol­umes, on tight mar­gins, the choice was between this or going imme­di­ate­ly bust, or being tak­en over.

We’d like to think this kind of thing does­n’t go on so much today but with beer duty being yet high­er than the 1970s we would­n’t be sur­prised to find some 21st Cen­tu­ry vari­ant in play.

Fun­ni­ly enough, Ron Pat­tin­son has just post­ed about the use of ‘reprocessed beer’ at Younger’s in this peri­od with ref­er­ence to some archive paper­work. That makes us won­der if per­haps, rather than being mixed with itself, the com­par­a­tive­ly light, bland Tar­tan was hid­den in the folds of dark, even sweet­er stout and brown ale where it would be hard­er to spot.

It’s also inter­est­ing, by the way, to see fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the idea that Mid­lands drinkers in par­tic­u­lar were con­sid­ered to have dif­fer­ent tastes, as did young and old­er drinkers. We can’t help but think again of those soft, sweet New Eng­land IPAs.

Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968

For the Observer Magazine published on 7 July 1968, Cyril Ray (who we wrote about yesterday) assembled a crack team to taste beer.

Cover of The Observer Magazine, 7 July, 1968.The tone of the fea­ture as a whole is a lit­tle uncer­tain: Mr Ray’s text argues that beer is real­ly wor­thy of respect only to be under­cut by an illus­tra­tion (Wat­ney’s pale in a wine bas­ket) and sub-head­line (bor­rowed for this post) which sug­gest there is some­thing faint­ly ridicu­lous in the exer­cise.

Because he did­n’t think it would be fair to ask pro­fes­sion­al tasters from brew­ery qual­i­ty con­trol depart­ments to take part, he recruit­ed Michael Broad­bent, head of the wine depart­ment at Christie’s auc­tion­eers, and Dou­glas Young, a pro­fes­sion­al tea-taster.

Michal Broad­bent learned after a cou­ple of lagers… to taste in mouth­fuls rather than in his cus­tom­ary sips, real­is­ing that beer is meant to be quaffed, and that this is how it best shows its char­ac­ter. Dou­glas Young was soon iso­lat­ing spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics of each beer, and ask­ing the brew­er who looked after us, in Whit­bread­’s hos­pitable tast­ing-room, for the brew­ers’ phrase­ol­o­gy with which to define them.

Con­tin­ue read­ingBeer Gets the Con­nois­seur Treat­ment’, 1968”

Cloning Watney’s Red

There’s one beer more than any other that we would like to be able to taste for ourselves: Watney’s Red.

We know it was ter­ri­ble – we don’t doubt what we’ve been told by numer­ous peo­ple who were unlucky enough to taste it, includ­ing a for­mer Wat­ney’s PR man – but, like peo­ple who flock to watch The Room or Plan 9 From Out­er Space, we are mor­bid­ly curi­ous.

Note that we have spec­i­fied Wat­ney’s Red, not Wat­ney’s Red Bar­rel. The lat­ter had a bad rep­u­ta­tion, but it was prob­a­bly the for­mer, launched in 1971, which real­ly brought the wrath of beer geeks and trig­gered the ‘good beer move­ment’. It was­n’t mere­ly a rebrand but a com­plete refor­mu­la­tion, with a nas­ti­er, cheap­er recipe that pro­duced a yet sweet­er, fizzi­er beer.

We are hop­ing that, to coin­cide with our book launch, we can con­vince some­one to brew us a clone, and the mar­ket­ing peo­ple at Aurum Press liked that idea, so fin­gers crossed. At any rate, we’ll def­i­nite­ly give it a go at home using mini kegs and Co2 bulbs.

But first things first: what was the recipe? Here’s what we know.

  1. A press state­ment for Red issued in 1971 (accord­ing to Roger Protz) described the beer as hav­ing a ‘bland­er taste and a bet­ter head’.
  2. In his 1973 book The Beer Drinker’s Com­pan­ion Frank Bail­lie described Red as ‘a well bal­anced keg beer with a burnt malty char­ac­ter­is­tic’.
  3. From cor­re­spon­dence with one for­mer Wat­ney’s pro­duc­tion brew­er, we know that Red ‘prob­a­bly… used raw bar­ley and added enzymes’, unlike Red Bar­rel.
  4. Dave Line claimed in his book Brew­ing Beers Like Those You Buy (1978) to have been giv­en full details of many recipes by brew­ers; he does not give a recipe for Red, but his oth­er Wat­ney’s bit­ter recipes (for ‘Spe­cial’ and Starlight) use Fug­gles hops.
  5. In April 1972, Which? mag­a­zine gave an orig­i­nal grav­i­ty (OG) of 1037.9 and an ABV of 3.67%. The Dai­ly Mir­ror of 10 July 1972 had 1037.2 and 3.6%. When CAMRA test­ed it a cou­ple of years lat­er, they got 1037.8 and 3.4%.
  6. Ron Pat­tin­son and Kris­ten Eng­land shared this recipe for Whit­bread Tankard from 1971. It was made with around 72% pale malt, 4% crys­tal malt, 6% ‘tor­ri­fied bar­ley’, and then a lot of sug­ar. Can we per­haps assume a vague­ly sim­i­lar malt bill for Red? And sim­i­lar hop­ping rates?

Does any­one have any oth­er sources they can point us to?

(And we don’t mean mod­ern home brew recipes based on guess­work, which is in turn based on the mem­o­ries of a friend­ly CAMRA mem­ber.…)

UPDATES 13/3/2014

  • On the advice of Steve ‘The Beer Jus­tice’ Williams, we emailed Dr Ken­neth Thomas who looks after the Courage archive where man of Wat­ney’s records end­ed up. He told us:
[Although] I found exten­sive records still at the Tru­man brew­ery in Brick Lane, and at the for­mer Mann’s brew­ery in Whitechapel, the for­mer archives of Watney’s had, in the ear­ly 1980s, already been deposit­ed on indef­i­nite loan at either the Lon­don Met­ro­pol­i­tan Archive in Clerken­well, or at the City of West­min­ster Record Office in Vic­to­ria… So, if any brew­ing recipes exist for Watney’s Red, they will be some­where with­in the col­lec­tions either at the LMA or West­min­ster.

  • We also had anoth­er look at that 1972 edi­tion of Which? mag­a­zine: their tast­ing pan­el observed that Tankard was paler and ‘fizzi­er’ than Red, and Red was by far the dark­est of the beers sam­pled.