While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub(please buy a copy) is beer.
It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.
Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)
Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.
At this point we’d like to thank Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!
This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.
So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.
Running a pub has always been a matter of margins which can encourage dodgy behaviour, from watering the beer to serving up slops.
Tom Berkley’s 1955 comic memoir We Keep a Pub is either a goldmine or completely useless depending on your view of the semi-fictional James Herriot school of writing.
It tells the story of Bill and Irene Day, apparently stand-ins for Berkley and his own wife, who return to Britain from colonial work in Malaya and decide to run a pub. The brewery they approach sends them out on a series of placements to learn the trade and the book is an account of the characters they meet and customs they observe in a string of London pubs.
For example, in one pub, Bill and Irene become fascinated by the snack counter which offers two items: veal-and-ham loaf and Melton Mowbray pie. What is the difference between the two? They look identical. Irene decides to find out by ordering a slice of each, and Bill observes that “the snack girl gave her a nasty look”. It is only when they see a customer order Melton Mowbray (premium) but receive veal-and-ham (cheap) that this gentle fiddle becomes clear.
The behaviour in the cellar of the landlord of this pub, a Mr Lawson, also goes some way to explaining the decline of mild in the 1950s. He explains to Bill that mild ale, being unfined, is easier to adulterate: “You can’t put nothing back into the bitter.”
[He told me] that if waste beer were put into fined beer it turned it cloudy, but that a reasonable amount did not harm to bright beer…. [All] beer collected in drip cans was invariably poured into the mild ale, and not, as I had naively imagined, thrown away, or even returned to the brewery as ullage as so many people think. And at the Gorget Hotel the same was done with the filtered dregs from barrels of fined beers, and the lees of bottled beer and used glasses. It did not matter to Mr Lawson what kind of beer it was: bitter beer, light ale, brown ale, Burton: according to him it was all fit to go into the ale.
Bill wonders if anyone ever notices this jiggery-pokery:
“Mild-ale drinkers never notice nothing — not if you don’t overdo it; and that reminds me: when you was pulling up mild-and-bitters last night I see you giving ’em half-and-half. That’s no good. All you want is a drop o’ bitter at the bottom o’ the glass and fill up with mild. Mild’s cheaper than bitter. See? You got to watch the stocks.”
As well as the unofficial methods of recirculating waste beer there is also the brewery’s own preferred approach, the utilizer, “a sort of china bucket that hung from a hook in the ceiling”:
[Waste] beer from the various bars drained into the utilizer, whence it was sucked into the public bar by a little auxiliary pump on the beer engine at a rate of about a spoonful per glass…
The next pub, the Block & Anchor in the East End, is a similarly grotty, penny-pinching place. The staff pay for their own drinks by short-changing customers. When Rosie the barmaid’s cigarette ash drops into a customer’s beer she apologises, tips it into a drip can, replaces the pint, and then serves someone else the beer from the drip can later in the shift. The manager, Mr Grainger, tips three buckets of slops into a half-empty cask of mild. Perce the Potman is supposed to clean the lines every Saturday but evidently never does.
I noticed that the bottles had been put on the shelves straight from the boxes without being polished; that the shelves were dirty; that the pewter was tarnished a dull dark-grey colour. There were puddles of beer on the counter; glasses were cloudy and smeared with finger marks. The electric-light bulbs were spattered with fly spots.
Pouring slops into the mild is bad; is letting down beer with water better, or worse? We suppose it depends on whether you prioritise hygiene or intoxication. One of the best passages in the book concerns Mr Grainger’s furtiveness over this illicit activity:
“I’d better do the cellar today,” he muttered, with a sidelong glance at the clock. “You ain’t got time to go down there today. See?”
Of course Bill forgets and does go into the cellar where he discovers a funnel jammed into the top of a cask of mild, half full of water, with two more buckets of water at its side. Fearing he has been rumbled, Grainger becomes tense and knocks back several gins.
Eventually, he confronts Bill.
“You know, a man can’t be honest in this line,” he blurted out, giggling foolishly to cover his embarrassment.
I decided to help him.
“No, I suppose he can’t,” I mumbled commiseratingly, “not with his staff guzzling all the profits.”
“No,” he said sadly… After a silence lasting several seconds he he glanced up at me, and I saw tears in his eyes.
He cleared his throat.
“A man’s got to try and make it up somehow, or else get the sack,” he mumbled.
Later, discussing the business with Irene, Bill makes two further observations:
It is useful to know that customers won’t notice six gallons of water in thirty gallons of ale, and “thirty bob a bucket for water is not so bad”.
Grainger chose his watering hours carefully: after all, which excise officer ever worked after midday on Saturday?
The pub that features in the third act, the White Lark, is a respectable place with decent managers, the Handens. Mr Handen is proud of his beer and holds the view that it is better to sell two casks of good clean beer than one of the dirty stuff:
I’m proud o’ my bitter; that’s what makes your name — and you don’t want to muck around with your mild too much, either. All mild-ale drinkers ain’t dumb, though there’s many as thinks they are.
But even they are winkingly dishonest in various small ways. For example, Mrs Handen always accepts a drink when offered by customers; if they’re poor, she takes a Guinness, and drinks it; but if they’re well off, she accepts a neat gin, takes a sip, and hides what remains beneath the bar to be sold to a customer later, thus being paid twice for the same drink.
The dirty tricks aren’t all on the publicans’ side, though, and Mr Handen clues Bill in on one of the brewery’s bits of slyness: they send in spies (Slimy Grimes, one is nicknamed; the other Mephistopheles) to check that staff aren’t drinking to excess, that things are being run properly, and that opening times are being observed. You’d call these mystery shoppers now, we suppose.
And then, worse, there is Mr Green, the brewery’s inspector, who turns up with shaking hands, accepts a run of free and discounted drinks, asks for the loan of some money (a bribe) and leaves having decided that there’s no need to actually go down into the cellar, up to the kitchen, or look at the books.
Of course all of the above has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with other of these We Ran a Pub memoirs there’s a streak of class disdain running through the whole thing. The authors are generally of the officer class, regard working class people as filthy brutes, and the publicans as worse again because they have the nerve to believe themselves respectable.
Being fictionalised, there’s no way to know what really happened, whether it happened to Berkley himself, or whether this amounts to a collection of trade mythology.
But, anyway, it’s worth a read.
Now, when is the first We Ran a Craft Beer Bar memoir due?
Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.
In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…
… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:
These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.
They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…
[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006. However, when considered overall some differences are evident. Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average. This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker. More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness. While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%. This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts. In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving. The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.
These days it’s not unusual for breweries to release beers intended to support a particular cause, but we reckon we might have pinpointed the first: ‘No Cruise Mild’, from 1983-84.
It was produced by Pitfield Brewery on a tiny kit in the basement of a specialist beer shop near Old Street in London and sold through one of David Bruce’s Firkin brewpubs, The Pheasant & Firkin in Islington. The name refers to US Cruise missiles, the installation of which was protested by women’s groups at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire during December 1983.
While the name of the beer certainly showed support for the Greenham Common protesters the short article in What’s Brewing for March 1984, which is the only reference we’ve been able to dig up, doesn’t make clear whether any of the profits from its sale also went their way. It does, however, reproduce Ken Pyne’s cartoon for Marketing Week which we hope he won’t mind us sharing here:
Of course there were lots of beers before this that you can argue were political in one way or another — all those commemorative beers for the 1981 royal wedding and the Queen’s coronation, for example, are political in their own way — but we reckon this might be the earliest example of a beer whose branding was explicitly tied to a progressive cause.
If you reckon we’re wrong, or have more information on this particular beer, let us know in the comments below.