Tuesday 22 November 2016

Pleasing all palates

“Beer in Britain” is a fascinating little book, providing a snapshot of British drinking culture in the late 1950’s.

But the name is slightly deceptive, because there’s little material about beer itself. The vast majority of the book is dedicated to pubs and the people drinking in them. It’s useful stuff, but at the same time the lack of detail on the beers being drunk is frustrating. Though it’s revealing how central the pub was considered to beer-drinking.

MORE than ever now the brewer has to cater for the different tastes of the customers who use his houses. He has to contend with palates that are sweet or bitter, that demand the high gas-content of bottled beer or the lower gas-content of draught beer, or that are influenced surprisingly by mere colour. In the old days, before women and that large ephemeral body so unkindly described by the planners as "Higs" began to invade the pubs, the brewer's life was easier because he knew with greater certainty which types of beers and stouts were needed. Nowadays the market is more complex, and so his answer is to brew a wide range of beers and thus hope to satisfy as many people as possible.”
"Beer in Britain", 1960, page 94.

I’m not convinced that’s true that the beer market was more diverse after WW II. My experience of looking through brewing records tells me many brewers reduced their ranges during the war and never brought back most of the beers discontinued. And the range of draught beers fell. Outside London and Ireland draught Stout had disappeared and Burton was on its way out.

But note that the assumption is being made that beer is drunk in pubs. And that women only began drinking beer when they started visiting pubs. Not sure if that is completely true, but that’s the assumption,

“This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because if public taste changes the brewer knows at once how to change his production. Thus, after the war, when materials became free, the brewing trade was able to help provide the extra sugar content that the nation by its own decision (rather than that of the man in Whitehall) knew it wanted. Sweet stouts and ales were the order of the day. These had been produced before the war, and brewers could therefore cope with the new demand. Equally they could deal with any swing away from sweetness that might appear once the nation had made up for the wartime lack of sugar.”
"Beer in Britain", 1960, page 94.

There was certainly a surge in popularity of sweet styles of beer like Milk Stout and Brown Ale after WW II. Perhaps this was partly a reaction to the lack of sugar and sweet foods during the war. Because these types of beer fell into serious decline in the 1970’s.

A notable feature of British pubs has always been selling multiple different beers. Whereas on the Continent (Belgium excepted) offering just a single beer wasn’t unusual. It still isn’t in much Germany.

“Thus the industry's strength lies in its ability to adapt itself to the ebb and flow of taste. Its weakness is shown up by the way in which American and Continental brewers have coped with their markets. Many now brew and market only one beer, in one size of container. By this concentration, particularly on the marketing side, they have achieved far greater successes than when they tried to cater for several tastes. Many British companies, by contrast, brew 10 or more beers, and the irreducible minimum is probably two draught and four bottled beers. The temptation for the British brewer is to listen to the siren song of "one brewery — one beer" — especially as the public, influenced by advertising and merchandising in other commodities, becomes more brand-conscious. For the small brewer contending with the big firms' advertising policies, or the large one first picking and then backing his marketing fancy, the basic need remains to brew the irreducible minimum of beers.”
"Beer in Britain", 1960, page 94 – 96.

I think here the author is betraying that he isn’t an industry insider (the article isn’t credited, unlike most of the others). Because breweries might have marketed 10 beers, but would have brewed fewer. For example, Brown Ale and Mild were often essentially the same beer. As might Light Ale and Ordinary Bitter.

What do you think the irreducible minimum of two draught and four bottled beers would be? My guess: draught Bitter and Mild; bottled Brown Ale, Light Ale, Stout and Pale Ale or Strong Ale.

This is an interesting point:

“This immense diversity of public taste creates the fascinating pattern of the brewing industry. However hard any company may try to make people buy one particular brand of beer, customers will nevertheless exercise the right to choose for themselves. An outstanding sign of the limitations of advertising has been the post-war recovery of draught beer in the South. Nor have sales been seriously affected in the Midlands, North, and Scotland—all in spite of the emphasis of advertising on bottled beers.”
"Beer in Britain", 1960, page 96.

I’d thought that the surge in popularity of bottled beer in the 1950’s was due to pent up demand, suppressed by wartime restrictions. I’d never considered the influence of advertising. Possibly because when I first noticed beers adverts in the 1960’s, they were mostly for draught or keg beers. Guinness being a notable exception.

Next time we’ll be looking at the different types of beer in more detail (though not much more).


StuartP said...


Ron Pattinson said...


I meant to ask if anyone had idea what a Hig was.

Anonymous said...

This article from the Leicester Mercury says a hig is a greedy girl, possibly a combination of hog and pig (the male version is pog).


Bailey said...

"I think here the author is betraying that he isn’t an industry insider"...

Or was parroting the official line: they knew the beers weren't really different, and you know it now because you've seen the paperwork, but Whitbread certainly ran ads touting the *vast* range of beers they were able to offer across their whole empire in the 1960s.

Jeremy Drew said...

My guess from the context is something like 'High Income Group'.

Lee said...

The same meaning as hick?
Hick being an unsophisticated person.