Friday 17 June 2022

The Whitbread Gravity Book

What a wonderful document it is. Well, pair of documents, as there are two volumes. The most valuable references for anyone wanting to take a close look at British beer in the 20th century. I don't know what I would have done without it.

Across thousands of entries, it records the vital statistics of  the beers of Whitbread's rivals. OG, FG, price, colour. Sometimes even short descriptions of flavour, condition and clarity. There's an emphasis on the London area, which was Whitbread's main stomping ground. But plenty of beers from all parts of the UK.

Between them, the two volumes cover a span of almost 50 years: 1922 to 1968. Starting with the fallout of WW I and ending in the keg era, there were a lot of changes over those years. All of which you can see reflected in the Gravity Book's pages. For example, laying bare what bad value keg beer was in comparison to cask.

I've lent heavily on the Gravity Book for a couple of my works: Austerity! and Blitzkrieg!. One, Draught!, is totally dependent on it. 

While writing the last-named book, I got a better idea of why Porter was in terminal decline between the wars. It was quite often in poor shape, described as "sour" or "going off". Sounds like cask beer that's been on for too long. Poor sales meaning beer gets too old, leading to even fewer sales. A vicious cycle, such as happened with Mild a few decades later.

When it becomes particularly useful is in relation to breweries whose records have been lost. Allowing us our only glimpse at what their beers were like.

I've transcribed every entry into a spreadsheet. Except for a couple of pages where my photos are too blurred to read. It took a lot of hours. Worth it, totally. Not sure I'd want to do it again.

a Barclay Perkins page from volume 2

For the moment, the Gravity Book volumes are in a safe place: London Metropolitan Archives. But you have to physically go there to access them. A pretty big limitation.

How could I forget my book Numbers!. Which has hundreds of analyses taken from the Whitbread Gravity Book. As well as other sources.


Dan Klingman said...

We've all learned a lot from your efforts, so thank you.

Anonymous said...

I went back through a bunch of your postings on this and it was a phenominal effort to transcribe all that.

I saw Truman also did this. Were they the only ones, or was this a common practice for brewers with the resources and the other books are likely gone?

Russell Gibbon said...

Excellent. The books and your work to draw out for US what they contain. I am curious though - how the hell were Whitbread able to get hold of and essentially collect over 44 years, the vital brewing numbers of so many of their rivals?

Ron Pattinson said...

Russell Gibbon,

they just sent someone to the pub to buy a sample. (Sometimes it even gives the name of the pub.) Then sent it to a lab for analysis. I'm not sure if that was their own lab or one from a third party. Inside the Gravity Book there are a couple of dozen typewritten slips of paper which look like the results back by the lab. Which were then copied into the Gravity Book by hand.

Ron Pattinson said...


I know of a few others. How many there once were is hard to say. Brewing Books are more likely to survive. So even breweries whose records have been saved might have lost their Gravity Book.

Chris Pickles said...

Being a sample collector must have been a risky job at times. I can't imagine many pub landlords being happy if they knew some outsider was coming into their pub and taking away beer samples for analysis.

And what happened if Whitbread's analysis revealed that the Watney's pub down the road was selling watered beer. Presumably thi/s would have been obvious... would Whitbread quietly tip Watney's off?

John said...

I appreciate they would have been very provincial back then, but are there any beers from either Bateman's, Soulbys or Hewitts in there? I know Whitbread looked at buying Soulbys at one stage.

Ron Pattinson said...

Chris Pickles,

collecting samples wouldn't have been dangerous. In the 1920s, it was still common to get a jug of draught beer to take home. No way the landlord would guess that the beer was going to a lab.

Ron Pattinson said...


there are four entries for Hewitt, none for the other two.

Anonymous said...

Did they test their own pubs for quality control purposes? Is any of that recorded here (or elsewhere)?

Ron Pattinson said...


yes, they also analysed samples of their own beer bought in their tied houses.