Friday, 19 February 2010

The 1950's beer drinker

My copy of "The Book Of Beer" by Andrew Campbell arrived this week. I can't believe I'd not heard of it before. It provides a drinkers perspective of beer in an age before CAMRA and Michael Jackson. Fascinating stuff.

I'll be annoying you with quotes from it for some time. But to kick off, here are a couple about the 1950's beer drinker:

"The man who goes out to select his beer with the care the connoisseur gives to wine is in for a difficult time. He will meet with little encouragement, he will have to cross-examine barmen and barmaids almost with the skill of a Q.C. to secure any information other than the most general. It is in fact quite an amusing pastime to collect and note the number of times he is given absolutely wrong information. Nobody will offer him a 'vintage list'. If he asks his friends for advice they will probably be violently partisan between the brews of X and Y and Z, mostly on the basis of habit and with little real reason."
"The Book Of Beer" by Andrew Campbell, 1956, page 198.
That's eerily like many of my own experiences. Trying to work out if a pub sells anything interesting but being frustrated by ignorant bar staff.

"The war years apart, the public has had stronger and better beers before it, and it has solidly preferred the weaker. It is not just a question of price, for many men will buy a light ale and pay more than they would for a half-pint of much higher gravity draught beer. In the face of this remarkable preference for the weaker drink it is commendable that brewers have persisted with their stronger beers, and that they are at present introducing new types and publicizing them widely."
"The Book Of Beer" by Andrew Campbell, 1956, page 199.

Why is British beer so weak? It's a question often asked. The war and taxation are often blamed. But I think Campbell has hit the nail on the head: ultimately, it's down to the preference of drinkers. It's a point those who criticise British brewers for lack of daring should bear in mind.


Matt said...

When you say "why is British beer so weak?", I assume you're talking about session beers between 3-5% abv.

One of the reasons I think is the tradition of dinner time drinking. It means you can have a couple of pints in the middle of the day and still go back to work afterwards.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I love the bit where Campbell suggests a beer for every part of the day, including a glass of mild for its laxative effect in the morning…and look out for the bit where he says lagers are for the ladies…

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, but before WW I people used to drink a pint of 5% plus beer on their way to work.

Gary Gillman said...

Astute observations by Andrew Campbell, who had a sensibility ahead of his time. The situation today is both changed and it is not. Recently in a standard, busy downtown beer bar, when I commented on the lack of any craft beer, the server said it was the first time she had heard any comment on the beer in years of working at the pub. I said, "what if people want a brand you don't carry?", she said they switch to another she'd offer and end of story.

In beer-aware establishments, the situation can be much different, yet with a double-side to it. Recently when commenting that a (non-cask) pale ale was served heavily cloudy and this was wrong, I was subjected to a rambling account, quite wrong, of how all beer at one time was turbid until glass was developed. Of course, even if it was cask it should have been clear, but the example shows how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

So, often you can't win. There seems always to have been true beer soul-mates though, clearly Campbell was one, George Saintsbury was another. Some of the 19th writers often discussed here were in this class too.


Matt said...

Ron, it's true as you say that in the past the British drank much stronger beers before work (and during and after work as well).

I think two things have changed since then however: the decline in heavy industries like coal and steel and thus the physical labour to work off the effects and the prevalence of cars - people think they're OK to drive after a couple of 3.5% pints but wouldn't if they were 7% (I speak as a public transport-using pub goer).

Ron Pattinson said...

Matt, it's true what you say. But the fall in gravities occurred before mass car ownership and the disappearance of heavy industry.

The trend towards lighter, weaker beer began in the 1860's or 1870's. WW I just seems to have speeded up the change.

Ron Pattinson said...

Adrian, I'll get to lager eventually.

Jeff Renner said...

I'm amazed to discover that I have had a book in my modest library that you hadn't until now. I'm not sure where I picked up my copy. I see from the penciled number "24" on the flyleaf that I paid 24 somethings for it. Dollars, I presume. Hope it wasn't pounds.

Another book I recommend for a similar, even earlier English perspective on beer, is the classic "Notes on a Cellar-Book" (1920) by George Saintsbury. (I have the 1978 third edition). Mostly about wine, he does have a brief chapter (nine pages) on beer and cider, which starts,rather surprisingly, considering his reputation as a wine connoisseur:

"There is no beverage which I lave 'liked to live with' more than beer; but I have never had a cellar large enough to accommodate much of it, or an establishment numerous enough to justify the accommodation. In the good days when servants expected beer, but did not expect to be treated otherwise than as servants, a cask or two was necessary; and persons who were 'quite' generally took care that the small beer they drank should be the same as which they gave to their domestics, thought they might have other sorts as well. For these better sorts at least the good old rule was, when you began on one cask always to have in another."

He also writes about his inability to find the "curious 'white ale,' or lobor agol" of Devonshire and Cornwall. He touches upon cider, mead, and even lager ("English lager I must say I have never liked").

beertruck said...

“Why is British beer so weak? It's a question often asked. The war and taxation are often blamed. But I think Campbell has hit the nail on the head: ultimately, it's down to the preference of drinkers. It's a point those who criticise British brewers for lack of daring should bear in mind.”

I agree. It’s the drinkers’ choice. My 2 cents (this “theory” applies better to lager than weak British ales, but still…):
The average, non-discerning person will normally prefer a blander, weaker, lighter, more neutral, less demanding kind of drink or food. The same happens with with music, movies… with everything. Only a minority is really interested in flavourful food and drinks or more demanding music or movies. Most just want something that is not very demanding and that is tolerable.
The evolution in the (beer) technology and later in the marketing tools brought brewers’ and drinkers’ interests together. Finally, brewers (and food companies) had the means to produce the bland, light, non-demanding drinks (and foods) that most people wanted (and probably didn’t even know they did). Those few concerned with quality, flavourful beer got screwed.
I´ve read somewhere (but you’ll probably prove me wrong through facts, Ron) that when A-B introduced corn in their Budweiser, they were only going after what was the public’s preference and that, unlike today, reducing costs was not A-B’s goal. Apparently,at the time (late 19th century? early 20th?), corn was actually more expensive than barley. (As I said, I read or heard this somewhere. I don’t have the evidence to back me. Maybe A-B were already back then the greedy bastards we know they are now.).

Jeff Renner said...

Beertruck - Budweiser has always used rice, not corn. Premium American lagers of the late 19th century used rice because corn milling was not refined enough to remove all of the oil, so it could go rancid. Rice was more expensive than corn, and may have been more expensive than malt, although I'm not sure.

But more to the point, rice and corn were used to dilute the high soluble protein level of American six-row barley, which could cause turbidity and other stability problems. The method for incorporating unmalted cereal adjuncts was developed around 1880, and the resulting beer, with its lighter mouthfeel, met with popular favor.

The classic brewing manual of 100 years ago, "The American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades" by Wahl and Henius gives good historic perspective on this. It can be viewed online at

I will post more about this book, which I have a copy of, at some time in the future if it seems of interest.

Matt said...

I think beertruck's "theory" is limping badly from the off as he himself admits when it comes to British beer: there is no correlation here between "weakness" (3-5%abv) and blandness, some of the hoppiest bitters and maltiest milds fall within this range.

beertruck said...

I know that nowadays a british 3-5% ale can be as packed with flavour as a 7-8% beer. But I believe (and, again, this is only a a guess) that at a certain stage, the reduction of strenght/alcohol must have come at the expense of flavour.