Friday, 6 May 2011

There's no bad beer

Not sure I would agree with that. I've been served plenty that was undrinkable for a variety of reasons. Number one being it had turned to vinegar. But it's a view I've heard espoused before. Mostly, it's true, by the sort of bloke they were observing in Worktown.

There a few glimpses here into the arcane world of the pub cellar. But much is still supposition. It's one of the few aspects of beer that it's nigh on impossible to get hard information about: what (if anything) landlords did to their beer.

"There's no bad beer"

Though beer is a common subject of pub talk, the conversation. is mostly quantitative rather than qualitative—when, where, how much, and by whom, it was drunk, rather than about its goodness or badness. There are, however, drinkers who do care for the quality of their beer, and who will congregate at pubs whose landlords keep the beer in good condition (more about this later). And some will go out of their way to try a brew that is new to them, as this case shows;

The landlord here says he gets his beer from a small brewery in Derby Street. He doesn't care for large breweries, says "It's all done with chemicals". He likes, when possible, to let the barrel stand for a day or two before he taps it. Tells observer a story of how he once ordered a barrel of bitter, but no one asked for it until, six months later, a stranger called in and ordered a bitter. Landlord said that he had some, but it wasn't any good, it had been kept too long; but if he liked he would draw off a little and let him try it. The stranger said that it was wonderful—"like wine". This man took to calling in regularly for it, until the barrel was finished. It went soon, because he told his friends, and they came in for it too. In the end he said he was sorry that he had let them in on it. The moral of the story, according to the landlord, is that beer from the big breweries goes off in no time, and if it had been -----'s bitter it would have been absolutely undrinkable.

Serious drinkers will watch the pumps while their beer is being drawn, to see that it is pumped properly and that no stale liquor is being put into it—a habit that they say is common. We have observed on busy nights in some pubs a bucket half full of beer standing just inside the bar, beside the serving hatch; and the waiters empty the slops from their trays into it. Theoretically all the slops, and beer left in glasses should be collected and returned to the brewers. A landlord writes of this:

Re condition of beer. Well, this varies, some brewers send it badly conditioned, and it takes three or four hours in that case before ready for use. It takes beer weeks to go off unless something is wrong in the brewing, it is returned if not suitable and replaced, mind you. Brewers do not like a landlord to return anything and they expect him to have the intelligence to dispose of it (someway). Re glasses returns. That also should go back into the barrel and be returned to the brewers, but I question very much if this is done in most pubs.

Some pub-goers give this reason for preferring the "vault" to other rooms, because only in the "vault" can you watch your beer being drawn off. (But you can't know what slops have gone back into the barrel from last night.) About 15 years ago a new type of pump was introduced into one local pub; these pumps were out of sight of the customers and they disliked them; after a few months they were taken away and the old ones replaced.

For the great majority of drinkers, taste and quality of beer are not the major factors; were they so most of the big popular pubs in the town would have to go out of business. The general attitude is nicely summed up by the following correspondent:

There is, I think, many different brands of beer which so far I have not had the Pleasure of Tasting. Those I have, such as: Magee's, Walker's, Hamer's, Cunningham's, and one or two others, have all a nice Flavour, and I enjoy a glass of beer. The Price question I will not Dispute, because I do not Drink Excessively, so I don't favour any particular Beer, and so I always say: There's no Bad Beer, only sometimes Indifferent.

Most pub-goers simply drink the cheapest available beer, while a minority exists for whom quality is most important. This is in agreement with the findings of Basil Nicholson, author of the section on Drink in the London Survey (also republished separately by the Church of England Temperance Society). We cannot trace any other work in this field to which we might refer our conclusions.
"The Pub and the People" by Mass Observation, 1943 (reprinted 1987), pages 36 - 37.

I'm not sure I believe that story about leaving a cask of Bitter six months untouched. Why did the landlord order it in the first place, if he had no Bitter drinkers amongst his customers?

Collecting slops and putting them back into the barrel. This is a rumour that's older than Methuselah and still refuses to die. Is it because it seems so obvious or because it's true? I fear the latter is probably the case. This statement "the intelligence to dispose of it (someway)" sounds like a vague admission that breweries expected landlords to return slops to the barrel. What other intelligent way would there be of disposing of them?

A word of explanation about the term "vaults". This was the room that contained the bar counter and the handpumps. The other rooms were served by a hatch onto the corridor or by waiters. You can still find this arrangement in Lancashire and Yorkshire pubs

That stuff about beer condition doesn't make sense. Three or four hours before being ready? Beer won't condition - or even drop bright - in such a short length of time. I wonder if it's days rather than hours that were meant. The landlord of the the small brewery's pub said he left the beer to stand a day or two. That sounds more realistic. After just a few hours in the cellar the landlord would be serving yeast soup.

Who would have guessed that the poor would usually drink the chaeapest beer? Weird. I've seen the price argument advanced as one of the reasons for Mild's rapid decline in the early 1960's. With rising living standards, drinkers could afford to choose something other than Mild. And did.


Anonymous said...

I recall discussing things with the landlord of a Bateman's pub in the 1960s. He said that the brewery gave him an up to 6% ullage allowance , the slops were returned to the brewery to claim this.
Happy days, 10 pence a pint for the mild and no breathalyser.

Gary Gillman said...

Very good stuff. I was hoping they would enter into a discussion of actual palate differences, but they went half-way there. There is a contradiction in the report though. They sum up the "general attitude" by quoting someone who doesn't choose by brand alone, fair enough, but then he states he doesn't pay the cheapest price. Then, Mass Observation states the majority of drinkers only pay the cheapest price!

I agree though that things today are broadly similar, most people are not concerned with beer differences or quality and will tend to pay less than more. A minority thinks otherwise, as in the 1930's-40's.

The 6 month story is very reminiscent of an account in George Saintsbury's book where he states that in Wales, he came across a pub that had laid in some pale ale - it was Bass I think - in the autumn and due to weather, the pub closed over the winter and opened in spring. Saintsbury found the beer excellent but says when he went back on another trip, there was no 6 months old beer.

I suppose it's possible that the beer conditioned and improved a la White Shield although the landlord was correct probably that only a small brewer's brand would take to the aging and this is probably because the big brewers were using less hops than the small brewers.

I'd like to see that "London section" account.


Ed Carson said...

Why were the "slops" supposed to be returned to the brewer? And were they to do with them?

Gary Gillman said...

I found this review of Mass-Observations' study of beer and pubs in Bolton, published in The Listener in 1943:

It is by none other than George Orwell, and note how the theme of there being no bad beer is echoed in the quotation at the end: it must have been a mantra of the time, since the source is not the landlord quoted in the extract cited by Ron.

This review happens to be followed by Orwell's famous essay on the ideal pub. Ron, you will be gratified that Orwell bemoans the increasing rarity of draught stout, gratified in the sense that it seems to accord with your findings of a much reduced sale by this period.


Ron Pattinson said...

Ed, that's the way the system worked. Waste beer was returned to the brewery and the pub credited for it.

I know what they did at Wilsons with returned beer: it was pasteurised, loads of sugar and caramel added and then it was used in Cream Stout.

Anonymous said...

Regarding people buying on price, my experience is that to most people these days a few pence difference doesn't affect buying.That's by the way why we have a single price for all beers in our festival regardless of ABV.
In fact when you see people paying 50 or 80 pence more for stuff like premium lager and Guinness than they could be paying for lovingly brewed cask ale the expression "more money than sense" comes to mind.

Craig said...

The real question is, what was that fantastic, 6 month old bitter from Derby Street!

Anonymous said...

I wondered at that. There were a few breweries in the Derby St. area. It's one of the main roads out of Bolton and Magee's was based just off Derby Street, though given the tone of the article it sounds as though it wasn't Magee's as that was quite a large concern. Howcroft's was based in the thirties on Rothwell St, again just off Derby St, but it may have been Leach's, based at the Albert Inn on Derby St and which ceased brewing in 1937. The Albert itself closed just a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about returning beer to the barrel, but I know someone who worked in some pubs in Britain some decades ago. He said they would not reuse beer from customers' glasses, but they did save what collected in the drip tray beneath the taps. They would then line up a few glasses with a small portion of the reserved spilled beer and fill them off the pump when a new order came up.

Murphy said...

One other related comment... In Belgium it was common for the slops, beer from the drip trays and other unconsumed beer to be collected and sent back to the brewery. Jean Van Roy of Cantillon passed along the story during a talk he gave earlier in the year. He said that the breweries would then pour the returned beer into a barrel and re-inoculate it with some of the fermenting lambic. He said they preferred to use fresh wine barrels for the project as the lees and other precipitate from the wine would help the recycled beer drop bright.