Sunday 10 September 2023

Real Ale pubs in the 1970s

When CAMRA started to really take off in the mid-1970s, a new type of pub started to appear. Free houses where, rather than just serving the Mild and Bitter of whichever brewer gave them the best deal, they would sell cask beer from several different breweries.

In those days, it was very unusual for a pub to sell draught beer from multiple breweries. Even “free houses” were usually committed to the draught products of a single brewer. Bottled beers were a different matter. Some big bottled brands – Guinness and Mackeson, for example – were available in other brewers’ tied houses. Bass is the only draught beer that broke out of the tie.

Having grown up in a region where brewers mostly had a very limited draught. Mild and Bitter. With no Best Bitter or Old Ale, seeing more than two operational hand pulls was an occasion. Entering a pub with six or even eight beer engines, all dispensing a different beer, was like a punch in the face. In a good way.

I did learn to be wary of pubs with lots of hand pumps. Sometimes more than their trade could sustain. Selling two cask beers was sustainable for most pubs. Six or more? Only a pub with a large number of committed cask drinkers. I preferred tied houses with just a couple of casks. If there was a decent landlord.

And here’s one of the great things about cask beer. A mediocre beer can be polished and made to shine by a good cellarman. The downside is that an idiot landlord can ruin the most wonderful beer.

CAMRA, in my opinion unwisely, set up their own real ale pub chain. There was nothing wrong with the pubs themselves. They had a range of cask beers from different brewers. One, The Eagle, was in Leeds. And in an area I regularly pub-crawled. All the other pubs on the crawl were Tetley houses, so it did offer a little variety.

The problem was more a conflict of interest. A consumer organisation that was dabbling in the trade? Too many places the aims of the campaign and the pub chain wouldn’t be in sync. 

As always, your memories are welcome.


Andrew Bowden said...

Only having been born in the late seventies, I can't say much about pubs of the time.

But about fifteen years ago I was in a busy pub in rural Scotland. There was one handpulled ale on, and I ordered it. Completely unbidden the landlady started talking about how she'd much rather have one cask ale on at the time and know it was in perfect condition, than have multiple beers on that may be past their best.

She had a point. Her beer was excellent, and I have had some fantastic beers in pubs that only have one or two ales on. Indeed I once went into a pub where they had only about five draught beers full stop.

Sometimes less is definitely more.

Anonymous said...

Was there a big price difference between cask and non cask beers of roughly similar strength and style? I'm curious if there was much room for more profit per glass.

Or was offering cask more about trying to increase market share and improve the reputation of a pub? Or some combination?

Anonymous said...

One in Hyde as I remember, the White Gates

Ron Pattinson said...


keg beer was always more expensive than cask. Around 15%-20%. If you look at this page:

You'll see two Greenall Whitley beers. Festival was keg in the table pn this page.

They look like the same beer to me, but the keg is 15p and the cask 13p. There are other examples in my look at beer strengths and prices in the 1970s.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply. I'd assumed cask was pricier based on the limited amount I see today in the US, but it's interesting to see my assumptions upended.

If you have more coming on the reaction of owners and brewers to CAMRA, I think it would be an interesting subject.

Rob Sterowski said...

Think about it, if cask had been more profitable than keg, breweries wouldn't have been so keen to get rid of it, would they?

Innovation is very often an attempt to get a product with a better profit margin on sale. You introduce a new beer, advertise it heavily to young, trendy people, and disparage old people who complain the new stuff is more expensive.

This works well for a few years, then competition eats away at your profit margin and you have to start again.

Bitter displaces Mild; Keg bitter displaces cask Bitter; Lager displaces keg Bitter; Premium Lager displaces ordinary Lager; “craft beer” displaces premium Lager.

And increasingly, wine and cocktails are displacing beer entirely, because you can easily charge £10 for a cocktail now in trendy bars, whereas not many can get away with asking that for a pint of beer. Yet.

Anonymous said...

Cask beer is still the cheapest on the bar. This despite the higher wastage involved.