Monday, 17 June 2013

Beer drinking in the 1930's

We're dipping one final time into Sydney Nevile's highly informative article on beer in the 1930's.

Starting with a point I've often made: that beer was shaped in the political and economic forces with which it coexisted. The enormous increase in the taxation of beer during WW I and the interwar period affected not just the beer itself but the attitudes of drinkers to it:

"The combined result of the constructive policy of the trade, the relatively high price of beer and the altered and improved standard of manners, customs and ideas of the masses of the people, has led to regard being paid by the consumer more to quality and flavour than to strength and volume. The alcoholic strength of beer, which remained practically unaltered from 1885 to 1914 at roughly an average of 5 per cent., and which was reduced owing to restrictions during the critical period of the war to something between 2-3 per cent., gradually rose when the restrictions were removed, and now stands at an average in the neighbourhood of 4 per cent., at which point so for as can be seen it will remain more or less constant in the absence of any material change in the rate of duty or other conditions. The great bulk of industrial beer consumed by the masses is now probably in the neighbourhood of 3 per cent, to 3.5 per cent, of alcohol content, whilst stouts and what may be termed "luxury" beers range up to 5 per cent."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.

Beer had gone from being a cheap everyday item to something rather more expensive. Paying more, consumers also expected to get more for their money in terms of quality. It's a logical enough demand.

His prediction that average beer strength would remain around 4% turned out not to be true. Though, in Nevile's defence, there were material changes in the conditions. A little fracas called WW II.

The "industrial beer" he talks of is surely Mild Ale. Was it really 3 to 3.5% ABV? That's lower than the post-W II average of about 3.7% ABV. You can probably guess what's coming now. A look at the Mild Ales on offer in 1935 - 1936 and their strengths. It's at times like these that I'm glad that I could be arsed to transcribe the Whitbread and Truman Gravity Books. I've more than enough data to check Nevile's assertion:

Mild Ales in 1935 - 1936
Year Brewer Beer Price Acidity FG OG ABV App. Atten-uation
1936 Barclay Perkins Ale 4d 4d 1007 1029.1 2.87 75.95%
1935 Charrington Ale 4d 1031.5
1935 Fuller, Smith & Turner LA 4d 0.07 1007.9 1032.8 3.23 75.91%
1936 Greene King Ale 4d 1028.9
1935 Ind Coope Ale 4d 1028.8
1935 Kidd Ale 4d 1032.2
1935 Leney & Co X 4d 0.06 1006 1028 2.85 78.57%
1935 Mann Crossman Brandon's LA 4d 0.04 1004.4 1031 3.46 85.81%
1935 Meux Ale 4d 1028.3
1935 Truman Ale 4d 1030.02
1936 Wells & Winch Ale 4d 1031.8
1935 Whitbread Ale 4d 1027.05
average 1029.96 3.10
1935 Barclay Perkins X 5d 0.07 1011 1037 3.37 70.27%
1936 Cannon Brewery X 5d 0.06 1015.1 1034.9 2.55 56.73%
1935 Charrington X 5d 0.05 1012.3 1037 3.19 66.76%
1935 Charrington X 5d 0.06 1012.4 1037 3.18 66.49%
1935 Courage X 5d 0.06 1011 1035 3.11 68.57%
1936 Courage X 5d 1037.01
1936 Ind Coope X 5d 1035.19
1936 Mann Crossman X 5d 0.08 1009.6 1044.8 4.58 78.57%
1936 Meux X 5d 0.07 1006.2 1035.4 3.80 82.49%
1935 Shepherd Neame X 5d 1039.9
1935 Taylor Walker X 5d 0.05 1014 1035 2.71 60.00%
1936 Truman X 5d 0.07 1009.4 1037 3.58 74.59%
1935 Watney X 5d 0.06 1011.8 1036 3.13 67.22%
1935 Watney X 5d 0.05 1011.5 1036 3.17 68.06%
1935 Wenlock X 5d 1035.9
1936 Wenlock X 5d 1036.02
1936 Wenlock X 5d 1036.69
1935 Whitbread X 5d 1038.04
average 1036.88 3.31
1936 Barclay Perkins XX 6d 1010 1043 4.29 76.74%
1935 Dare, Birmingham Ale 6d 0.05 1013.7 1047 4.32 70.85%
average 1045 4.30
Whitbread Gravity book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number LMA/4453/D/02/001.
Barclay Perkins brewing log held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number ACC/2305/01/621.
Truman Gravity Book held at the London Metropolitan Archives, document number B/THB/C/252

It's dead handy that the gravity books also give the price per pint, because I've been able to divided the Milds up into three classes:

4d. per pint Ale, the continuation of wartime Government Ale.
5d. per pint Ordinary Mild.
6d. per pint Best Mild.

By far the most common of the three types was 5d. Ordinary Mild. Low-gravity Ales were brewed in quite modest quantities, at least at the brewery's whose brewing records I've seen. Nevile is spot on in saying most was between 3 and 3.5% ABV. The average for 5d. Mild is 3.31% ABV.

However, Mild at this strength was a relatively recent phenomenon. Before 1931, Ordinary Mild had cost 6d. per pint and had a gravity of 1040-1045º. Then there was the disastrous increase in the tax on beer in 1931. Rather than increase the price to 7d., brewers cut the gravity to 1035-1037º so they could continue to retail it at 6d. When the tax returned to its old level in 1933, brewers didn't increase the gravity back to its old level but instead cut the price to 5d.

This is a point that I'd never considered: serving beer in places it never had been before:

"Whilst the average bulk consumption of beer per head has been largely reduced, the consumption has been spread over a wider class of the community. Beer is consumed by classes of people who in old days would have regarded wine or spirits as their customary drink. The service of beer, for instance, at balls and after theatres is now almost universal."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.

Presumably before WW I beer was overwhelmingly drunk by the working classes either in pubs or in their homes. Not in more upmarket venues like theatres. Though I bet they did serve Bass in posher places.

Remember the CAMRA line of argument that people only drank Lager because it was pushed like hell by breweries? We may have to reconsider that as it doesn't seem to have worked in the 1930's:

"It is to be noted that whereas over the rest of the world lager beer has ousted top-fermentation beer in popularity. Great Britain seems to be the only country where top-fermentation beer has held its own. Although lager beer has been largely advertised and a great number of brands are on the market and freely offered for sale, the total consumption in this country is still within very small proportions. The climate is frequently credited with the responsibility for this, but it is probable that the great attention given to the selection of materials by British brewers and the steady improvement of technique, both in the brewery and in the public-house, is the fundamental reason for the maintenance of the demand for British top-fermentation beer."
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 6, November-December 1936, page 521.
 I think I'm with Nevile on why Lager didn't take off in the first half of the 20th century. brewers were able to brew top-quality top-fermenting beer. Why should they incur the risk of buying the extra equipment required to brew Lager when there was no need to?

In many European countries top-fermenting beer had been produced in small, old-fashioned breweries. These weren't able, in most cases, to compete with Lager on quality and gradually disappeared. There were a few exceptions, like Düsseldorf and Cologne, where breweries upgraded their brewhouses and adopted some Lager brewing techniques. Their beers are still around today.


bailey said...

This is fascinating, especially the idea of a split between 'industrial' and 'luxury' beer.

I wonder if mild could be made more appealing to modern punters by branding it as 'best mild'?

Ron Pattinson said...

Bailey, I think Imperial Mild would work best for getting modern geeks interested.

Gary Gillman said...

Very interesting as always. The more I think about these post-WW I gravities, the more I am convinced the British session grew alongside. It only really works with beer at 3-4%.


Craig said...

That split—between industrial and luxury beer—is exactly what I was getting on about in my post about the Pennsylvania oil boom and Albany Ale!

Tyson said...

Perhaps dark Mild could be rebranded Imperial Black Mild? Although IBM might object:)

Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, crazily people actually drank a greater volume before WW I. I suspect people still had sessions, just that they got falling over drunk.

Ron Pattinson said...


I wish I'd thought of that one.

Gary Gillman said...

It would be interesting to see data on single-session consumption before WW I and especially when mild ale was stronger than pale ale and porter. I think Martyn once said he was looking into that.

But even in a hard-drinking age, drinking 10-12 pints of 8% mild ale...?


Rob said...

Imperial Mild:

Its apparently a barleywine.

Ron Pattinson said...


you read what Sydney Nevile said about before WW I: a narrower group of people drank beer, i.e. mostly just the working classes. Yet they drank a greater volume. They must have been throwing it back.

Alan said...

Falling over drunk was more common and accepted than I think we dare imagine.

1885 to 1930 is also the arc during which water would have become relatively safe to drink on a reliable basis, no? British immigrants to Canada were still being warned in the 1850s to avoid water and drink beer as water was dangerous to health.

bailey said...

The Mass Observation book has plenty of detail on how much people drank in a session before World War II, and what they were drinking.

Gary Gillman said...

Ron, they drank more on average in the 1800's than in the mid-1900's - I have seen other data on this - but it doesn't mean they drank more in one sitting. The patterns of drinking are important too. I suspect drinking at work or intervals of same was more common than in the more industrialized 1930's - the percentage of agricultural workers in the work force in the 1800's was much higher than between the wars, say.

Anyway, social history will tell the tale.


Ron Pattinson said...


I wish I had something similar for pre-WW I.

I've read that heavy drinking was much more common. And I mean heavy drinking by my standards - not able to walk properly state. But there's not that data as for Worktown.

I'm glad I didn't come acorss that book whwn I was 18. I'd have spent my 20's noting what every other bugger in the pub was drinking.

beer guru, jr. said...

Yuck. Heave-ho!

Anonymous said...

But in 1933 was beer cheaper then 10 years earlier ?

Ron Pattinson said...

chris house,

no, it was the same price. At least for the same gravity beer. Though because brewers cut gravities after the 1931 tax increase, the retail price of a beer might be lower.