Sunday, 2 April 2023
Looking back (part three): 1970s bottled beer
The popularity of bottled beer had declined by the time I first hit the pub. In 1960, the split had been 64% draught, 36% bottled. By 1970, it was 73% to 27%. But the bottled figures also included off sales. Which at the time were about 10% of the total.
Why had bottled beer sales fallen? One the answers is keg beer. One of the reasons for drinking bottled beer or mixed bottled and draught was the variable quality of cask beer. Keg beer, which though more expensive than cask, was still cheaper than bottled beer. And offered a similar level of consistency.
Also, some styles of bottled beer were going out of fashion. Milk Stout is a great example. Hugely popular in the 1950s, by the 1970s it had become associated with grannies. Who wants to drink what their Nan is drinking? No-one under fifty. Some breweries still made one, but Mackeson was by far the most common.
Most breweries produced a range of bottled beers. Light Ale, Brown Ale, Pale Ale, Stout and some sort of Strong Ale. That was about it, usually. With quite modest bottled sales, few brewers bothered to make beers just for bottling. Light Ale was bottled Ordinary Bitter, Brown Ale the Mild, and Pale Ale the Best Bitter. Stout and Strong Ale were usually just bottled products, though sometimes a Strong Ale might be sold on draught during the Winter.
There were a couple of very strong bottled beers, like Whitbread Gold Label or Bass No. 1, which were 9%-10% ABV and sold in nip bottles. And in London, Courage Russian Stout. It was unavailable in Newark, despite all the pubs being owned by Courage. The northern part of Courage operated quite separately. None of the beers from Courage's southern breweries were distributed in the Midlands and North.
Sometimes I did drink bottled beer. When a pub sold no cask beer, there was always an alternative for the real ale fan: bottled Guinness. Sold in every pub and bottle conditioned. It's hard to convey the magnificence of this beer. Dry, roastily bitter and with a distinct lactic tang. One of the greatest beers of the day. With so much more complexity and depth of flavour than the travesty of a Stout that is Draught Guinness. It was a sad day when they stopped bottle conditioning.
The other bottled option was Worthington White Shield. Another one of the handful of bottle-conditioned beers. Unfortunately, it was mostly only available in Bass Charrington pubs, so I didn't get to drink it often. It was bone dry, very highly carbonated and quite heavily hopped. Very pale in colour, too. Another excellent beer. Though you needed to be careful pouring it, as the sediment was easily disturbed. Most barmen wisely left the pouring to the customer.