Tuesday, 4 November 2014

A brief history of Britain's Beer! Part 4: The 1900 - 1960s


Are you a British man who drinks lager? If so, allow me to inform you that you would have been berated in the early 1900s for having a woman's drink! It's a far cry now from the loutish lager guzzling youths you see on a binge every Friday night down any British town centre.

I do drink lager. But only if there's no decent ale, and if you are not from Britain, I'm sad to say there are many many pubs around these fair isles which do NOT serve decent ale. How did Britain become this way? We've already discussed in three previous parts the evolution of Britain's best beverage, we've already looked at the complexity of ingredients such as grains, hops, and yeasts. We've talked about how new scientific and technological advancements made our beers better, of how the malted barleys were produced with cleaner flavours, of the influx of hops from Europe, of isolating yeasts to establish non-sour / tart infected beers. All, seemingly, to make a better tasting product. So how the frigging frig did we end up with something as insipid as piss-coloured mass-produced tinny lager?

It's a sad tale my friends. Sad indeed. We'll start our woeful tale right where we left off... but if you want to catch up on our little discussion head here:

Caught up? Or only interested in the decline and resurrection of Britain's best loved drink? Regardless, read on...

It is claimed that industrial espionage was responsible for the birth of pale lager. Our European cousins, jealous of our malting techniques to create pale malt, infiltrated our family and brewery-owned malt houses and gained the secrets of pale malts. Utilising this new found knowledge, they created the first pale lagers.

Lagering is a German term, used to describe the cold storage and aging of slow-fermented beers. These were traditionally done in ice caves, where the slow working yeast crawled through fermentation to produce a very crisp clean finish, producing very few extra flavour particles such as fruity and spicy esters that are common in British ale.

Britain isn't famous for its ice caves, so it's easy to see how this old European style of beer passed us by. The birth of modern refrigeration techniques in the mid 1800s made this task faster and available all year round, but it would still not reach popularity in Britain for another hundred years.

Last year I had my first Real Lagers. One was Boston Lager, the other St. Mungo's from Glasgow. Both were a far cry from the yellow lemonade served to the masses on tap. I enjoyed them immensely. I have no idea if these represent the sort of lagers that would have been available in the early 1900s, but I do know they were unpopular, and a "woman's drink" (fill your boots girls!). So why do they have such a following now? Why are lagers considered the norm?

The early 1900s - even before WWI - saw the sun setting on the British Empire forever. Our colonial interests were fading, and there was also a fair bit of social mobility going on. The poor were better off than they had ever been, and with more money came greater responsibility. Whilst in the Georgian and Victorian eras it was perfectly acceptable to become inebriated in the gin shops or public houses, fine to be sick on the streets, piss at the bar, sleep on the cobbles or beside the horse trough; this wasn't the case in the late 1800s / early 1900s.

"Gin Lane & Beer Street" William Hogarth; 1751
In Britain, there was a movement starting to gain traction. It wished to save poor children from the perils of hard spirits, and was supported by numerous religious organisations: Methodists, Quakers, and Catholics. It was the Temperance Movement. Whilst teetotalism (the abstinence from all alcohol) was not their first priority, there were groups within the movement that followed this measure.

Fitzpatrick's Temperance Bar, Lancashire; photograph taken from The Guardian UK
Apparently I had a Methodist Great Great Aunt from Yorkshire, and a taker of the pledge. She made very potent elderflower wine. When people commented on the fact it was alcoholic, she would tell them they were ridiculous, as she'd added no alcohol to the bottle! No doubt she said this with slurred words, hanging onto the kitchen table with a hiccough. Bless her!

The Temperance Movement started slow in the early 1800s, but by the mid 1800s it was trying to influence decisions in the House of Commons, including the draft of a prohibition law! By the 1920s they had even greater influence, and looking at our American cousins over the Atlantic, they eyed the prohibition that was in effect. A prohibition that would have a knock on effect to the British beer world in the decades to follow...

It may come as a surprise to some US readers, but Britain has never had a prohibition era. At the start of the 1900s in both America and Britain, and despite the Temperance Movement in our two countries, brewing was bigger than ever. We already discussed the rise of the macrobreweries, with their giant coppers, employing thousands of people, sending their barrels of ale out all over the Empire, via ship and rail. It was a similar story in America.

But when WWI broke out, the British government passed a new law to apparently aid the defence of the realm. Beer was either watered down, or brewed at a lesser strength. Our fine British IPAs dropped by half their original ABV! Pubs had strict licensing laws introduced. Prices on pints were raised nationally by a penny - something that today draws massive complaints and shouts of anger, but can you imagine that a hundred years ago? At the original price of two-pence and hapenny... ouch. Even buying a round of beer for your mates was against the new law!

Popular beer blogger Ron Pattinson  (Shut Up About Barclay Perkins) provides us with these figures of the drop in strength of typical British pale ales from before and after the act:

1839 Reid BPA: 6.5%
1858 Tetley A: 6.4%
1886 Hodgeson Bitter: 7.4%
1916 Whitbread PA: 4.9%
1943 Truman P2: 4.5%

Dramatic changes for beer were afoot! It is impossible to have the same beer whilst lowering the ABV. The amount of malt is lessened, and along with it the mouth-feel and flavour. It's also more difficult to have the beer hold the aroma, flavour from the hops, as you need far fewer hops to achieve the same bitterness, so this too would have been decreased. Popular brands became extinct, to be replaced by pale (no pun intended) imitations of the same name. The Bass ale pre-1914 that we looked at last time would be nothing compared to the one on offer these days.

Over the years these beers stayed at the norm, and with greater social changes happening between the World Wars, and the decimation of the population and the Great Depression, it is easy to see why. Our country was in debt. When WWII began, rationing came into effect. There was no way that precious barley could be doubled again to make the original ales, and so they stayed at their lesser strength.

I feel sorry for my grandparents' generation. They saw the loss of great beer. The efficiency of technology: advanced filtering and temperature control, along with the strict government laws saw the decline of ales to watery, flavourless, running beers - 'bitters' such as the weak John Smith's and Tetley's. Still, we can't complain too much, in the USA, beer had stopped altogether, with breweries shutting, or swapping industrial roles to sugar refiners etc.

Like looking at an old faded painting, we can still see the archeology of wonderful native ales of the 1700s / 1800s in the likes of Greene King IPA or Bass Pale Ale. And that is all Britain knew through the the 1950s and 60s. If drunk fresh, these weak beers sort of taste like ale flavoured creamy water. They were still mostly served in the traditional way, of hand pump through cask. Exposed to the air they had a shelf life of around several days to a week until the remaining beer was spoiled, and you were left with vinegar-flavoured creamy water instead.


Some of the laws were rescinded in the 50s / 60s, and it was again possible to buy strong beers - although only as a curiosity, or if you were local to the brewery. A good example of a beer that survived the purges of WWI is Theakston's Old Peculier, and old-fashioned dark beer of 5.6%, with some unusual flavours, but there was no great reemergence of old beer styles, instead, technology had its part to play again.

Kegging - using a pressurised container, instead of the open cask - had been used since the start of the 1900s, but it didn't become popular until the 1960s. Beers started to be pasturised to kill the yeast, and were re-carbonated by CO2 under pressure before storage - another attack on the flavour of our native ale! Landlord and drinker alike loved it. A pressurised keg could go on tap and be left there weeks before spoiling. The landlord's money was better spent with less wastage, and the pub-goer less likely to have a drink with even the whiff of vinegar about it. The key to the keg's success was consistency, and the fact they travelled so well. It didn't matter which part of the country you happened to be in, a pint of John Smith's Bitter was always a pint of John Smith's Bitter.


Post WWII saw greater social mobility, and the semi-abolishment - or blending - of the traditional British class system. The Conservative party were ousted in favour of a Labour welfare state. By the 1960s it was common place for those who had previously never been abroad to actually go on holiday. With greater working conditions and equality of pay, a National Health Service (Don't worry USA, you'll get that right one day...), Britain was no longer the 'Yes sir, no sir' society it had been at the start of the century. The sun had truly set upon the Empire, and we looked more and more at our own interests, and searched for an identity too.


Along with a love of pizza, pasta, paella and baguette, the holidaying British discovered a refreshing cold beverage of European lager - perfect for the summer sun. The demand for this pale fizzy drink remained when the returned home, and the surviving macrobreweries quickly made their entrance to the market with lager. It became the young man's drink, with a slosh of lime cordial added in a half-pint for the ladies. The watery ales remained of course, but were seen as uncool, or only for the older generation. Seemingly the last nail in the coffin was hammered home. With a few local exceptions, proper British ale was more or less dead...
The foreign usurper and slayer of British ales.

Next time we'll discuss the re-emergence of British ale in the 1960s and 70s, retaining the cask, old men with beards (CAMRA), young men with beards (the nouveau beer drinker), The negative and positive influences from the USA, modern craft breweries, and the wolf in sheep's clothing as the macrobrewers strike again...  In the meantime, have a beer! If you don't, these serious looking chaps will be disappointed...