Sunday, 1 May 2011

Beer in Worktown

Just as well someone eventually guessed my most recent book addition. Because it's now been superseded. By a very special book. One I've been awaiting with eager anticipation for weeks. That's what you get for ordering books from Australia.

The book in question is "The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation. The project began when Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist decided to move the object of his studies from Borneo to East Lancashire. No-one had ever bothered seriously investigating the minutiae of British working class life before. A group of "observers" were recruited to provide data. They mixed with the locals in their everyday life, recording what they saw.

The first tangible result of the study was "The Pub and the People", which describes pubs, their users and their customs. It's an unrivalled insight into what went on in a 1930's northern pub. Though what it reports still needs to be looked at critically. Sometimes it seems the subjects might have been taking the piss out of the observers. But some of the conversations recorded are timeless, and could easily have happened in my pub drinking years.

The study was conducted in what's called Worktown, but in reality was Bolton. I'm not quite sure why they bothered trying to disguise the town. Saying that Magee was the local brewery, the town had 180,000 inhabitants and the football team was called Wanderers doesn't make it hard to work out. Bolton.

Plenty of material to be getting on with. But where to start? Maybe with a description of what they were drinking in the pub. Frustratingly, I only have one analysis for a Magee beer, a postwar bottled Stout. It would have been nice to have a bit more hard information about the beers.


Says the Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed.) speaking of different kinds of beer:

The essential difference . . . lies in the flavour and colour, which depend particularly on the type of malt and the quantity of hops used in brewing them.

Beyond a certain stage of fermentation the chemistry of beer is a mystery—highly complex, not yet known. Brewers proceed empirically. Differences between different kinds of beer can be shown on the basis of their alcohol carbohydrate and proteid content.

Alcohol % by weight,    Carbohydrate and Proteid %.
Strong Ale 5.15 9.6
Bottled Pale Ale (best quality) 4.44 4.4
Light Bitter  3.28 3.06
     {From 3.45 4.44
Mild {To  2.58 2.8

Mild is the most commonly drunk beer in Worktown. It costs fivepence a pint—minimum price. In parlours and lounges, the pub's best rooms, patronized by hat and tie rather than cap and scarf, all beer prices are a penny a pint more.

Most of it is supplied by Magees (a local) and Walkers (a nearby) brewery. Other firms are Threlfalls, Hamers, Cornbrooks . . . But Magees and Walkers dominate the local pub scene.

As well as mild there is "best mild", penny a pint more, stronger, and in observers' opinions, nicer than the common mild. It is light in colour, like bitter, which is seldom drunk here.

Other draught beers are strong ale, I.P.A., stout. So that Worktowners' choice is:

MILD 5d. a pint
BEST MILD   6d. a pint
I.P.A.  7d. a pint
STRONG ALE      11d. a pint

Draught stout no longer counts. At one time commonly drunk, it now is extremely rare here; we have only seen it sold in one pub. Strong ale is not often drunk; when kept it is displayed on the bar counter in a little barrel.

I.P.A. is interesting. Originally a light bottled ale brewed in this country to be sent to India, specially suitable for hot weather, its introduction to English drinkers was the result of an accident. Hodgson's India Pale Ale was the standard drink of Englishmen imperializing in the east. In the 1820's Bass came in on this market. (They were able to do this as the result of a "misunderstanding" between Hodgson's and the East India Co.) By 1827 shiploads of Bass's I.P.A. were walloping their way down the Irish Channel. One was wrecked. But much of its cargo was salvaged and sold at Liverpool. There, the local drinkers acclaimed it, and Bass's developed a good market in the whole of the area. A bar selling I.P.A. at the 1851 Great Exhibition launched it as a world drink.

But, now, in Worktown, I.P.A. (which is to-day made by all the main brewers) — only sold in bottles in most places — is largely draught. It isn't drunk very much except in a few pubs, is considered to be very intoxicating and to give you a bad hangover. Of it, a barman in a pub that sold it said, "It's a good appetizer — but I wouldn't like to have a lot of it".

Draught beers, on the other hand, are served through pumps, whose handles, sometimes wood, sometimes brass and china, plain, coloured, or patterned, stick up conspicuously upon the bar-counter. The average pub has three or four pumps; these used to be used for mild, best, and stout. Now one or two are often disused, and the others connected up to barrels of mild.
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), pages 30 - 31.

Lots of good stuff in there. Let's kick off with the draught beers. Mild, Bitter, Strong Ale and Stout. The proportions of each sold are quite different to London. Draught Stout was still sold in every London pub in the 1930's, compared to in just one in Bolton. Mild was much less dominant in London. Theses are the percentages of Whitbread's total output of each of their draught beers in 1937:

Mild 38%
Strong Ale 3.5%
PA 9%
Porter 1%
Stout 15%

Based on the price per pint, I'd say the Magees beers had gravities something like this:

Mild 1035º
Best Mild 1042º
IPA 1045º
Strong Ale 1070º

So IPA was originally "a light bottled ale". See? It wasn't strong. Nice story about the shipwrecked cargo of IPA being sold off in Liverpool. But didn't Martyn Cornell look into it more deeply? I'm sure he did and couldn't find record of any such shipwreck. And I didn't think any beer was sold at the Great Exhibition.

Colour. Almost forgot about that. It says that Best Mild was pale - like Bitter. Which implies that the ordinary Mild must have been dark.


Anonymous said...

A brewery in Darwen, Hopstar, are curently brewing a beer called Sugar Devil, which they claim to be based on a recipe for Magee Marshall Best Bitter. The abv is 4% and it is served in at least one pub in Bolton. As Magee's was taken over by Greenalls in 1958 and the brewery closed 12 years later so only drinkers of around 60 or over can vouch for the authenticity of Sugar Devil.

When I started to drink in Bolton in the late-seventies Greenalls name was mud and comparing Greenalls Bitter with Sugar Devil one can see why. The taste are completely different - Sugar Devil is very sweet compared to the now-rarely seen Greenalls which was a much more bitter beer. A Bolton brewery, Bank Top, produce something similar in their Flat Cap ale.

Interesting to see the comparison between what we assume to be the darker Mild and the lighter Best Mild. I remember being told in the early-eighties that light milds outsold dark milds in the town by a ratio of about three to one.

NAM said...

I can echo Anon's comments: it was common to hear drinkers in Greenall's pubs bemoan the loss of Magee Marshall's bitter for years after it disappeared. Mind you, Greenall's bitter was so undistinguished that this was damning with faint praise. I never heard anyone comment about Magee's mild(s), though.