There a few glimpses here into the arcane world of the pub cellar. But much is still supposition. It's one of the few aspects of beer that it's nigh on impossible to get hard information about: what (if anything) landlords did to their beer.
"There's no bad beer"
Though beer is a common subject of pub talk, the conversation. is mostly quantitative rather than qualitative—when, where, how much, and by whom, it was drunk, rather than about its goodness or badness. There are, however, drinkers who do care for the quality of their beer, and who will congregate at pubs whose landlords keep the beer in good condition (more about this later). And some will go out of their way to try a brew that is new to them, as this case shows;
The landlord here says he gets his beer from a small brewery in Derby Street. He doesn't care for large breweries, says "It's all done with chemicals". He likes, when possible, to let the barrel stand for a day or two before he taps it. Tells observer a story of how he once ordered a barrel of bitter, but no one asked for it until, six months later, a stranger called in and ordered a bitter. Landlord said that he had some, but it wasn't any good, it had been kept too long; but if he liked he would draw off a little and let him try it. The stranger said that it was wonderful—"like wine". This man took to calling in regularly for it, until the barrel was finished. It went soon, because he told his friends, and they came in for it too. In the end he said he was sorry that he had let them in on it. The moral of the story, according to the landlord, is that beer from the big breweries goes off in no time, and if it had been -----'s bitter it would have been absolutely undrinkable.
Serious drinkers will watch the pumps while their beer is being drawn, to see that it is pumped properly and that no stale liquor is being put into it—a habit that they say is common. We have observed on busy nights in some pubs a bucket half full of beer standing just inside the bar, beside the serving hatch; and the waiters empty the slops from their trays into it. Theoretically all the slops, and beer left in glasses should be collected and returned to the brewers. A landlord writes of this:
Re condition of beer. Well, this varies, some brewers send it badly conditioned, and it takes three or four hours in that case before ready for use. It takes beer weeks to go off unless something is wrong in the brewing, it is returned if not suitable and replaced, mind you. Brewers do not like a landlord to return anything and they expect him to have the intelligence to dispose of it (someway). Re glasses returns. That also should go back into the barrel and be returned to the brewers, but I question very much if this is done in most pubs.
Some pub-goers give this reason for preferring the "vault" to other rooms, because only in the "vault" can you watch your beer being drawn off. (But you can't know what slops have gone back into the barrel from last night.) About 15 years ago a new type of pump was introduced into one local pub; these pumps were out of sight of the customers and they disliked them; after a few months they were taken away and the old ones replaced.
For the great majority of drinkers, taste and quality of beer are not the major factors; were they so most of the big popular pubs in the town would have to go out of business. The general attitude is nicely summed up by the following correspondent:
There is, I think, many different brands of beer which so far I have not had the Pleasure of Tasting. Those I have, such as: Magee's, Walker's, Hamer's, Cunningham's, and one or two others, have all a nice Flavour, and I enjoy a glass of beer. The Price question I will not Dispute, because I do not Drink Excessively, so I don't favour any particular Beer, and so I always say: There's no Bad Beer, only sometimes Indifferent.
Most pub-goers simply drink the cheapest available beer, while a minority exists for whom quality is most important. This is in agreement with the findings of Basil Nicholson, author of the section on Drink in the London Survey (also republished separately by the Church of England Temperance Society). We cannot trace any other work in this field to which we might refer our conclusions.
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), pages 36 - 37.
I'm not sure I believe that story about leaving a cask of Bitter six months untouched. Why did the landlord order it in the first place, if he had no Bitter drinkers amongst his customers?
A word of explanation about the term "vaults". This was the room that contained the bar counter and the handpumps. The other rooms were served by a hatch onto the corridor or by waiters. You can still find this arrangement in Lancashire and Yorkshire pubs
That stuff about beer condition doesn't make sense. Three or four hours before being ready? Beer won't condition - or even drop bright - in such a short length of time. I wonder if it's days rather than hours that were meant. The landlord of the the small brewery's pub said he left the beer to stand a day or two. That sounds more realistic. After just a few hours in the cellar the landlord would be serving yeast soup.
Who would have guessed that the poor would usually drink the chaeapest beer? Weird. I've seen the price argument advanced as one of the reasons for Mild's rapid decline in the early 1960's. With rising living standards, drinkers could afford to choose something other than Mild. And did.