Alternate History: XXXX instead of IPA

Imaginary keg font with 1977 Food Standards labelling recommendations.

The UK Government’s 1977 Food Standards Committee Report on Beer is a strange but illuminating document. It records how certain words and phrases relating to beer were being used at a certain point in time and, in its recommendations, most of which were ignored, presents a vision of what might have been.

After representations from CAMRA and others, the Committee agreed that beer needed clearer labelling. Their proposals were that draught beer point-of-sale information (pumpclips) ought to contain:

  • A declaration of the amount of the amount of malted barley used.
  • An indicator of strength based on the ‘XXX’ system, referring to original gravity rather than alcohol percentage in the finished product.
  • Disclosure of carbonation above 1.5 volumes.

Their proposal for the gravity bands and acceptable (but not compulsory) text descriptions was as follows.

  • Up to but not including 1035 — Light — X
  • 1035 up to but not including 1041 — Special, Heavy — XX
  • 1041 up to but not including 1047 — Export, India Pale Ale (IPA) — XXX
  • 1047 up to but not including 1062 — Strong — XXXX
  • 1062 and above — Extra Strong, Barley Wine — XXXXX

In the explanatory notes, they say this of IPA:

“India Pale Ale” (“IPA”) was originally brewed to have sufficient stability for export by sea to India and “export” probably came into use as a modern equivalent. These beers were originally stronger than those brewed for the home market and our impression is that consumers expect them to be rather stronger than ordinary beers. We recommend that the use of these two descriptions should be restricted to beers in the third band (XXX). We realise that there will be some beers which have been called “export” which are stronger than is given by this band. Any limitation of names must create anomalies, which are the more to be regretted if the claim to the name has a reasonable basis in terms of the original meaning of export.

They also suggest banning the use of the words ‘best’ and ‘premium’ on beer packaging. If they’d reported this year, they’d probably have added to that list ‘craft’, ‘crafted’, and so on.

On that basis, a pumpclip for a keg IPA with an original gravity of more than 1047 (that is, stronger than about 4.5% ABV) might have looked something like the one we’ve mocked up in the picture above. Weird, huh?

Draught, Keg and Cask

Cover of Monopolies Commission report on beer, 1969.

Until the 1950s, there was no real need to define ‘draught beer’: it was the opposite of bottled beer, simple as that. Then keg beer came along (Watney kegged bitter in 1936; Flowers coined the term ‘keg’ in 1955) and suddenly draught beer had a split personality.

For many people, it didn’t matter. As long as they got a ‘pint’, they weren’t fussy about where it came from. Some ‘connoisseurs’, however, knew they didn’t like keg, but weren’t sure exactly needed a new term to describe exactly what it was they did like.

They tried ‘beer from the wood’ (in common since at least the turn of the century), until some smart arses pointed out that most casks were made of metal these days anyway. While the confusion continued, big brewers happily promoted keg beers as good, traditional, draught made the way it always has been, from premium malt and hops, only slightly better.

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood decided the answer was to reclaim ‘draught beer’ and lobbied government for several years from the late sixties. It was a con, they argued, to call keg bitter draught. Draught, they said, was, you know, proper draught, the good stuff, from the wood, but not necessarily actually from wood… oh, sod it. They were repeatedly rebuffed by Whitehall.

In 1969, the Monopolies Commission, which had been investigating various industries in the great era of corporate mergers, reported on pubs and brewing (link to PDF). As bureaucrats are often required to do, they spent no little time establishing terminology, and came up with this handy guide:

We use the description ‘draught’ beer to include any beer which is supplied to the retailer in bulk containers and drawn to order in the pub for each customer. All the large brewers and many smaller ones now brew a kind of draught beer which has become known as ‘keg’ beer. Although the word ‘draught’ is sometimes used to distinguish traditional draught from keg beer, for the purposes of this report we call the former ‘cask’ beer. [B&B’s emphasis.]

The report, which was widely read by those with an interest in beer, probably did a great deal to popularise the use of the term ‘cask’ in this way.

The report, if you’ve got the patience, is a fascinating read, especially the opening section which summarises the types of beer commonly available and most popular with drinkers.

UPDATE: worth noting, too, that Frank Baillie’s 1973 The Beer Drinker’s Companion classifies each brewery’s beers as either draught, keg or bottled.

Why exactly #1: keg beer in the UK

Watney's Keg advertisement from 1962.

Brewers were keen to push keg bitter and do away with cask-conditioned beer… but why?

In the late nineteen-forties, they had noted (a) falling sales of beer across the board; but (b) a rise in sales of bottled beer. ‘Draught beer’ (cask-conditioned ale) was often poorly kept and had certainly become rather weak in the wake of two world wars.

They had no desire to rebuild or refit every pub cellar, or to retrain every publican; bottling was expensive and inefficient. Kegs and ‘top pressure’ tank beer seemed the obvious solution. In an article in the Financial Times (FT) on 8 August, 1962, Sir Fordham Flower (!), Chairman of Flowers, listed as the ‘essential qualities’ of keg beer:

  • an ability to be sterilised
  • a capability to withstand fairly high pressures
  • a perfect and unalterable measure.

Other advantages became clear as keg’s market share grew. As an analyst in the FT pointed out on 8 September 1965, keg beer’s ‘consistent qualities’ made it ‘a good candidate for national TV advertising… Charrington United, for example, devoted all its recent TV advertising to its keg brand, and the pattern is not exceptional’. As the idea of ‘national beer brands’ arose, cask-conditioning became less and less convenient for brewers.

Finally, brewers seem very genuinely to believe, presumably based on market research, that there was strong demand for colder, more highly carbonated beer among a core market they otherwise feared losing: the young. They wanted a new generation to get into the habit of drinking beer rather than Coca Cola, rum’n’Coke, cider or wine, and so tailored their product to ‘immature tastebuds’ (that 1965 FT reporter again).

So… what if brewers had reacted to early nineteen-sixties consumer protests and added stronger, more characterful, less cold-and-fizzy keg beers to their ranges? Might they have headed off the revolt and succeeded in doing away with cask-conditioned beer altogether? Perhaps those who love cask ale should be grateful the big brewers were so penny-pinching, obstinate and arrogant.

There’s nothing new being said here, of course, but it’s useful for us (and maybe for some others) to have a quick summary of this in once place. More of these posts to follow. Next: why were they so excited about lager? Let us know if you have any questions you want us to look into!