Thursday, 30 August 2007

The Price of Beer Yesterday

This article was published in the Weekly Dispatch on April 8th 1917, just as new government
came into force limiting the amount of beer produced and drastically rasing duty. You'll see how much discord it aroused.

There are a few snippets of social history in it that amused me. The importance placed on the workman's "the morning pint" may sound odd to us, but it demonstrates just how different British drinking culture was before WW 1. Whereas regular drinking of spirits was recognised as a vice, even by publicans.

We're also given a rare glimpse of what beers London pubs were selling, through the landlord's price fixing agreement. Worth noting is the absence of porter from the draught beers and the presence of lager in the bottled ones. You might have expected three years of bitter fighting with the Germans would have killed the demand for lager. A WW I pub's draught beer choice has genuine variety - Mild, Bitter, Stout, Burton - each has a very different character. Give me that rather than half a dozen bitters with only a few tenths of a per cent alcohol difference between them.

"There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month." No sign of it yet. Patience. Maybe next millennium.

The Price of Beer Yesterday.


Threatened Strike of Publicans.




Weekly Dispatch, April 8th 1917

There were some remarkable fluctuations in the price of beer in London yesterday, with a tendency to go back to the old prices.

At the Black Dog in Shoe Lane, London, bitter was only 3d a half pint - 2d. less that the price fixed by the Licensed Victuallers' Central Protection Society London: at the Temple in Tudor Street the charge had also gone down to 3d.; at the Mail Coach in Farringdon Street it was still at 5d.; at Gatti's Restaurant in the Strand it was 4.5d.; at the Wellington Restaurant, Fleet Street, 5d.

In South London, in Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a battle of the publicans ever since Monday last. At a meeting it was agreed to put up the prices, but when the time came a minority did not do so. The news spread quickly and the old-price houses were beseiged. Another was held and again an agreement to raise the price was reached, but this time a few of the publicans had a vendetta against the men who played the trick on Monday. One man in Peckham Road put outside his house a notice stating that as other publicans in the desitrict had been disloyal the old prices would be charged until further notice. Many others are doing the same. Yesterday in these old-price houses, it was fighting room only. In Manchester a boycott of formidable character is taking place.

In Manchester and Salford yesterday pickets were stationed near many beerhouses in the industrial areas, and the takings of hundreds of licensees decreased by over 50 per cent.

In Liverpool the boycott also continues. There has been a great drop in the trade and, contrary to expectation, the workmen have shown no sign of buying beer at the new price. At Sunderland the premises of one publican who declined to advance the prices and charged 4d. a pint were crowded to the doors, while people intending to enter premises charging 6d. and 7d. were assailed with cries of "Come out, you blacklegs" from pickets.

A strike was threatened by publicans in Chatham and Rochester yesterday. The licensed victuallers and beerhouse keepers there have decided to accept no further supplies of malt liquors from the brewery until they reduce their rates to the prices prevailing in the greater part of the county of Kent. According to present arrangements the public is henceforth to pay 10d. a quart for its mild ales and 1s. 6d. a quart for bitter ales.


"It's prohibition by price - so far as beer is concerned." said a London publican yesterday. He said that his sale had dropped by 50 per cent since the prices were increased in his establishment last Tuesday.

An old man walked in and asked for "a pint of bitter" and when told the price had been raised to tenpence walked out without touching the drink - a remarkable example of self-denial but typical of the kind of protest the British workman will always make when he feels, rightly or wrongly, that he is being badly imposed upon.

The new rise in the price of beer in a consequence of the war, which to many men is a more startling fact than the inflation in the prices of foodstuffs or luxuries. Twopence on on tobacco was serious, but as one ounce lasts the average smoker two or three days he did not feel the call on his pocket so much. But tenpence for the morning pint every morning has come as a brutal shock. Mild ale is only 7d., but to a man accustomed to bitter the change is extremely distasteful.


But the consequence of the prohibitive price would not be serious if it simply compelled a man to become a total abstainer.

The truth is that beer drinkers are not becoming total abstainers; they are becoming addicted to spirits.

The other day a man walked into a well-known buffet in Fleet Street and ordered a small bottle of Bass. At the same time the man standing next to him asked for a Scotch whisky. For the Bass the barmaid demanded the new price, 7d.; for the whisky she turned to the other customer and said, "Fourpence, please."

The beer drinker hesitated, then looking at the whisky, said: "Will you change the Bass for a Scotch?" The barmaid said that she could not do that, and the convert to whisky grunted, "Well, this is the last bottle of beer I'm going to buy. I shall save threepence by drinking spirits." At the same place a customer had two glasses of mixed vermouth and they did not cost him any more than a pint of beer.

A manager who controls many public-houses, both in the City and the East End, said yesterday that there had been a very sharp rise in the consumption of whisky.

"Several men I know," he said' "who for years have had a pint of beer every morning, which was their only intoxicating drink for the day, and never touched spirits, now call for a 'double Scotch.' It costs them twopence less than the beer."

He says that the same habit is also growing among the dockers.

The publican, of course, refuses to condemn these customers for giving way to what is a bad habit merely because the country's food peril makes it imperative that the brewing of beer should be drastically cut down. The publican's attitude is that beer is a very important food to a numerous body of workers, whose constitutions have become so habituated to the drink that they feel ill without it.


A curious situation created by the new prices is that many public-houses which have large cellars and a considerable supply of barrels bought at the old price have not yet raised their charges. The result has been a migration, temporary, of customers from a new-price house to an old-price house close by.

The new scale of prices as fixed by the Licensed Victuallers' Central Protection Society of London is:

Mild ale
half pint 3.5d.
Glass -

half pint 5d.
Glass 4d.

half pint 5d.
Glass 5d.

half pint 6d.
Glass 5d.

Mild and Bitter
half pint 4.5d.
Glass 3.5d .

Stout and Mild
half pint 5d.
Glass 4d.

Mild and Burton
half pint 5d.
Glass 4d.

Other prices: Bass 7d.; Guinness 8d.; London stout (screws) 5d.; pale ale (screws) 5d.; barley wine nips 6d.; lager, light or dark, 8d.

It has been pointed out on behalf of the brewers that the existing large stocks of malted barley, sufficient to brew the 10,000,000 barrels of beer authorised for this year, are useless for any other purpose.

This has been denied by Dr. Saleeby, who says that malt cake is an admirable food for cattle, and can be turned directly into meat an milk, and that if the cakes were supplied to farmers they would release for food the unmalted barley, oats, and sedes now being used as food for cattle.

In any case the public have got to make up their mind that, high price or low price, there is not enough beer to supply the old demand, or anything like it, and a good many people have got to do without it.

It is stated that a dozen or more metropolitan brewers have decided to offer their customers (or "tied" houses) the old "four ale" at 90s. a barrel and a trade discount, which will enable the publicans to sell at 3d. a half-pint and make a reasonable profit. These brewers have always maintained that 100s. per barrel, the present price, was more than the circumstances warranted. There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month.



Burton was a type of strong brown ale, one of the standard draught beers in a 1917 London pub. Wahl & Henius, describing the beer in 1902, defined it as being 1064-1069º OG and hopped at a rate of 2 to 3 pounds per American barrel. As a comparison, Burton Pale Ale is also 1064-1069º OG, with a hopping rate of 2.5 to 3 pounds per American barrel. Mild Ale was 1053-1058º OG hopped at 1.25 to 1.5 pounds per American barrel. As Burton's price was the highest per barrel in 1917, we can infer it was the strongest draught beer.
Burton had a long history, being mentioned by Combrune in "Theory and Practice of Brewing" in 1762. Its journey from ubiquity to obscurity is a lesson in the fickle nature of public taste. It finally died out in the 1970's, when Fuller's was replaced by ESB and Youngs renamed theirs Winter Warmer. Though, Youngs did recently brew a seasonal beer called Burton. Ballantine - the USA's largest ale brewery for decades - also produced a beer called Burton Ale, as documented in this article by Ed Kelley.

Bitter was, as today, part of the standard pub draught range. Wahl & Henius describe London Pale Bitter Ale in 1902 as having an OG of 1055-1058º hopped at a rate of 1.5 to 2 pounds per American barrel. By 1914 the gravity had aleady dropped to around 1050º.

Mild was one of the most popular draught beers. Always cheaper than Bitter, it wasn't necessarily weaker before 1914. Wahl & Henius describe London Four Ale (Mild) in 1902 as having an OG of 1053-1058º hopped at a rate of 1 to 1.25 pounds per American barrel. It dropped from an average OG of 1048º in 1914 to 1032º (about the same as today) in 1919. It bore the brunt of the cuts needed to get the average gravity for all beer down to 1030º. At the height of the wartime restrictions in 1918 it sank to 1024º, 1027º or lower and barely counted as intoxicating. Mild has remained a low-alcohol drink ever since.

Porter, long a London favourite, was stumbling uncertainly, even before 1914. The war gave it a final kick in the bollocks when it was already lying in a pool of its own wee. The weakest of the Porter/Stout style beers, it was elbowed out of its strength slot by Stout. Wahl & Henius describe Porter as having an OG of 1050-1061º hopped at a rate of 0.75 to 1.5 pounds per American barrel.

Stout remained a popular draught beer. It was the second-strongest draught, after Burton. Wahl & Henius describe Single Stout as 1064-1075º OG, hopped at a rate of 1.5 to 2 pounds per American barrel. Bottled stouts were stronger, with gravities as high as 1110º pre-war.

Lager is a surprising inclusion in the price fixing agreements. Finding someone who knew how to make it was a major headache for Britain's few lager breweries. Lager has a surprisingly long history in Britain. The first to try bottom-fermentation was John Muir of Edinburgh in 1835. The legendary Munich brewer Gabriel Sedlmayr had visited Muir's brewery whilst on a study trip to Britain in the early 1830's. Sedlmayr sent some Bavarian yeast to Scotland on Muir's request. Despite being impressed with the results, Muir abandonned his attempts when he was unable to propagate the yeast successfully.
The Wrexham Lager Beer Company was founded in 1878 and, despite a takeover by Ind Coope in 1949, only closed in 2000.
Tennent's of Glasgow first brewed lager in 1885 and built a new dedicated
brewhouse for its production in 1891.

Guinness was one of the strongest beers on sale in pubs. On April 1st 1917 Guinness Extra Stout was still 1074º OG (its pre-war strength), dropping in July the same year to 1062º. Guinness did not drop in strength as much as its English rivals because different rules applied in Ireland. By April 1st Guinness Extra Stout was down to 1049º (still higher than today - bottled Extra Stout is currently 1042º), but the average gravity in England by then was just 1030º.

Bass, like Guinness, was widely sold in bottled form, also in pubs tied to other brewers. It's gravity averaged 1062º in the 1800's. By 1919, it had dropped to 1044º. It later recovered a little in strength, getting up to 1046º in the 1950's.

Beerhouse - a pub with a licence to sell only beer, not wine or spirits. They were the smallest and most basic type of pub. During the course of the 20th century beerhouses mostly either closed or obtained full licences. I can remember drinking in pubs with beer-only licences as late as the 1980's (The Roscoe in Leeds) and there may still be a couple left.

For those of you unused to pre-decimal currency
d. = penny
s. = shilling
12 pence (pennies) = 1 shilling = 5p (modern money)
20 shillngs = £1

lb = pound = 454 grams
barrel = 36 UK gallons = 163.7 litres
gallon = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 4.546 litres

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