A pub or not a pub? That is the Question

How to Define the English Pub

Among beer and pub historians, an eternal question is how to define the English pub. In looking at this, games and sports come up a lot, as these are generally considered a marker.

Read any mid-20th century musing on a pub’s attributes, and odds are various games are mentioned: skittles, darts, shove halfpenny, bowls, billiards, or innumerable local games or variants. Do you know tippet? A West Country pub pastime, or it was.

British Pathé memorialized it, along with shove ha’penny, in this 1941 sound clip. (Some great images there too of pints of dark mild and bottled beer).

Other elements of the pub, highlighted by three stories in the mid-1900s Australian press, are:

  • the idea of community or a “social club” for the everyday man, hence frequented by people who know each other
  • beer-drinking, important but not the biggest attraction
  • liberal drinking hours, in contrast to Australia’s (then) 6:00 pm weekday closing and the related “swilling”
  • patronage by both men and women – Australian pubs were male-only at time of writing
  • entertainment, e.g., piano, a small band, dance orchestra in large pubs (Midlands cited)
  • differing amenities in the pub depending on the “bar” (public, saloon, lounge), but the separation breaking down due to “intermingling”

it’s interesting to note what is not included. The quality, types, and source of beer served, for example. In the larger community, that simply was not a factor. It hasn’t really changed since. Cask and craft beer are sub-cultures, with some importance socially and economically, but are not general markers.

No particular architectural style is stipulated. Nor is building size discussed although it is implicit in the discussions that most pubs were small, consistent with the idea of a club after all.

Food is not mentioned. Nor is the factor of the landlord’s particular personality, although other accounts mention it and this does play a role for many pubs.

In 2020, the factor of offering games or entertainment continues, say a quiz night, recorded music, a big screen for sports events, various digital entertainments. The games and other entertainment have evolved, in other words.

The thorough Financial Times will update you (if you don’t know), see this account. A wide variety of interactive games and creative apps has taken the place, yet not exclusively, of the games of the 1940s.

Most pubs serve food now, not just in cities as was typical in the ’40s. Most serve lager, and an increasing number serve craft or other non-traditional British beer. And many pubs are gathered into large, non-brewery-owned groups. Wetherspoons and other large pub operators exemplify this, with a certain “system” and uniform operating style.

Like a lot of things, except at the extremes it may be hard to say pub/no pub. I think for example most hotel bars aren’t pubs. American-style craft bars, such as Brewdog’s, are not pubs IMO, excellent as they can be in other respects. The decor, the drinks served, the food, the target patrons, tend too broadly from the core concept. (Maybe in time, in 10-20 years if craft bars endure, they will be viewed as pubs, at least the smaller ones).

The U.K. “micropubs” are certainly pubs; here the factor of the landlord assumes outsize importance.

What about something like Flight Club? Do you know what that is? It’s a highly successful small chain of bars, urban hipster-oriented, the vision of an ex-City worker who started them in 2015. Their concept is to update the venerable pastime of darts, which had been declining as a focal point in British pubs.

They do that by organizing teams in larger groups than traditionally and injecting a digital component, e.g., for score-keeping and online feedback to the patrons. It’s called social darts, and is actually quite cool.

Food is also a draw, wood-fired pizzas among other standbys of upmarket urbanity.

This Guardian story from 2018 by Gavin Haynes gives the low-down. Haynes contrasted a part of the country where traditional, non-digitized darts is still a big draw: Stoke-on-Trent.

Reading his account, the Stoke pubs seem to typify enduring qualities of the English pub, while Flight Club is a hip bar pitched to the upwardly mobile. Flight Club is now in Chicago, which its deracinated quality (so to speak) must have facilitated.

The Guardian explains that Stoke may be the most working class city in Britain. It has a large number of small pubs, the heritage of a network of localities that merged years ago to form the conurbation. The pubs function as traditional social hubs, and revolve around a game that has deep roots in Britain.

(For more information on Stoke darts, this website, Darts in Stoke, is an excellent resource).

Flight Club is also a hub but of a different sort, it hosts corporate functions (team-building is cited) and Tinder date nights. The decor is contemporary, judging from the website, more like a chic hotel or restaurant bar than a traditional pub.

The three Australian news accounts mentioned are:

The Argus, 1939

Warwick Daily News, 1945

Armidale Express, 1948

The first account includes this statement:

What is there about the English “pubs” that creates [the] tradition – what is it that we [in Australia], for example, have not got? The English “pub” is, to begin with, created by the English working man through a characteristic spirit of comradeship, tolerance, and good temper. It is his club, and around it have grown up national institutions such as skittles and darts. It is the village forum – a home away from home…

Since that time, women have been fully emancipated. There is probably also a greater proportion of urban pubs vs. rural than in the 40s, but as one of the articles notes, a city pub provides a social function just as the village pub does, only less intensively. Finally, there is the ongoing march of technology.

Allowing for this, the quotation applies just as much today as to its time. The key is the pub was an outgrowth of English (not even British, here, seemingly) people of a certain socio-economic background. While the source is a single journalistic account, we have studied the origins of the public house for many years, and find the statement persuasive as a general explanation.

N.B. If you put a pub on a train and decked it out to resemble an “olde worlde” inn, is it a genuine pub or not? See our treatments here, from earlier this week. FWIW, we think it was not. Too upscale both in conception and the likely audience, e.g., look at the models in the publicity pictures. There are other reasons, as well.







Pubs on Wheels (Part II)

Wouldn’t it be great to see a film of British Rail’s tavern cars introduced in 1949? Rest easy, you can. See here, courtesy British Pathé and YouTube.

It shows clearly the subject matter of my Part I. Note the bar where beers are being poured (just bottles here). We see the oak tables and chairs set against the walls, and patterned floor. The floor colours were black and red to simulate a tiled floor in a country inn. The pub sign looks great, too.

You can almost walk in, and chat with the chaps. Scenes are shown in the smart-looking restaurant, as well.

Despite high dudgeon in the House of Commons (“Hollywood mummery“, one MP cried) and letters columns – some of it self-interested surely, from design bodies not consulted – the cars look pleasing and inviting. At least this is so from my vantage point in 2020. That any port in a storm would please, at the moment, just adds to its allure.

Certainly the bar cars on French trains, which I had occasion to patronize recently, aren’t a patch on this, including no doubt the beer.

As for our Via Rail, it hasn’t a bar car at all, not that I ever saw on the Montreal-Toronto run.

The Australian press, the more thoughtful part of it, deployed a stylish wit at the plan, some at Australians’ expense. See here, and here.*

It’s all funny stuff and you need to read it yourself, but here is a sample.

Whatever else this new service may achieve (at the cost of near apoplexy among people of conservative leanings) it should lend variety to that popular pastime, the pub crawl. Up to now the pubs, at least until after the fifth or sixth drink, have stayed still and the patrons have kept on the move. The express taverns will reverse this rule.
Continuing from the same piece:
Moreover, their cunning exterior as well as interior disguise could bring the railways considerable involuntary custom. For example, absentminded or bemused revellers doing the rounds of orthodox hostelries in the vicinity of London’s St. Pancras might run a very good chance of finishing their outing in Scotland.

Although the cars are long gone, their apparent inspiration, the Chequers Hotel in Pulborough, Sussex, still stands proudly. This is their website. Some elements of the building do suggest a connection possibly, especially the warm brick and whitewashed parts. Maybe, too, the sash windows.

Other images I’ve seen show handsome oak beams in the interior. Even the bar looks in its physical aspect somewhat similar although likely it was redesigned over the years.

Looks like a lovely place, I must put it on our agenda, when world circumstances permit.

Note re image above: sourced from Wikipedia Commons, here, indicated as released to public domain. All feedback welcomed.


*Both via Trove Historical Newspapers.



Pubs on Wheels (Part I)

“Puffing Pubs”

Bar scene in the Bulleid Tavern car, c 1930s.

Beer and trains go together (except in the engineer’s cabin). The vaults under St. Pancras Rail station sized famously to hold the dimensions of beer barrels shipped down from Burton.

Anheuser-Busch using the rails to ship afar its pasteurized Budweiser, helping to establish a national market.

Beer figuring on club car menus (except during Prohibition) of which I’ve given numerous examples here.

An American railroad, Union Pacific, had between the late 1930s and 1950s a Frontier Shack and a British Pub on its Denver and other runs. See my discussion, here.

The American effort was a careful excursion into the consciously mythic. We were, by this time, in an advanced consumer society. Today the process is called (by critics) commodification if not sometimes cultural appropriation, but these forms are an age-old expression of a commercial society, of free enterprise.

The urban food halls and shiny vintage trucks selling world cuisine bring new experiences to people; how authentic is your call, with the freedom to patronise or not.

In a former time, a faux-Old West saloon in a streamlined steel wonder was the equivalent of our food halls and trucks. The equivalent of “chic-industrial” in the 1980s and 90s. The equivalent of Gay Nineties design in the 1960s. And so it will go forever – once the bars re-open.

Still, for the pub, the one place you wouldn’t expect to see a nostalgic revival of period design was Britain. I mean, they invented the pub, have always cherished it. When necessary, they evolved new forms: the 1930s suburban roadhouse; the 1960s blocky pubs in new tower blocks, and later, the ornate banks-turned-pubs … the cool All Bar One style … the railway arch bars.

A similar but distinct idea was theme pubs in the post-war era, see Boak and Bailey’s 20th Century Pub for a good elucidation. This invested the pub with a motif as a focal point for discussion, maybe some feature of travel, the natural world, sports or entertainment, outer space.

Sometimes a pub was renovated, not to exploit crassly a past vernacular but to restore simply its original look. A good example is the handsome Lamb pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, well-known for its Victorian fittings such as “snob screens”. For some background on the pub, see in “Lottie’s Walk”, an urban geography account. The building predates the 19th century but evidently was rebuilt as “Victorian” then. While not stated in the link, I understand the interior was first restored in the 1950s (and perhaps since).

The original Davy Wine Bars in London were an emulation of the Victorian, City wine bars, yes. The upright barrels strewn seemingly at random, the sawdust, coaching lamps, ranks of empty bottles – all an attempt to get at that. Pretty successfully, too.

For wine, somehow one accepts it, just as 20 and 30 years ago London borrowed the style of French wine bistro. Wine does not have the heritage in Britain of beer, the special status.

Why build a facsimile Georgian pub or Victorian gin-palace when you had the originals – those not splintered by German bombs? At most just a spruce-up was needed, a la Lamb. The nearby (Holborn) Princess Louise forms another example.

So no fake or “olde Englishe” country pubs were built in that era.* Right? Not exactly.

A signal exception was the British Rail creation of “tavern cars”. In the late 1940s a noted railway designer, Oliver Bulleid, created these for express lines going south and east from London. The cars, dubbed “mock-Tudor” in news accounts, were decorated on the outside with painted brick motif and strapwork on cream. Inside they had oak cross beams, a bar area partly enclosed in opaque glass (panes), a patterned floor. and other paraphernalia to resemble a comfy country pub.

There were high narrow leaded windows, apparently to ensure patrons did not loll with their drink enjoying an outside view.

Some have said that Bulleid was inspired by a pub in Pulborough, Sussex, the Chequers Hotel. Others said it was West Country pubs he had in mind. The pubs were given bucolic or traditional names, The Green Man, the Bull, The Three Plovers, the White Horse (pictured above). They even served draft beer, almost certainly the new bright, filtered, “keg” beer. The shaking of the coaches would have demanded no less.

In additional sources listed below you can see images of the cars, outside and in, and read narratives by railway historians explaining this absorbing detail of pub history.

The cars were popular with travellers, and ran for 10 years. Around 1960 they were converted finally to club cars. (The original set up was two cars coupled, one the pub car, one a restaurant car).

So even in the land of pubs, even before the full restoration of the peacetime economy, a commodification if you will of “England’s own” took place. Not that it hadn’t opposition, as the links below explain. Official bodies that hadn’t participated in the design thundered away in the letters columns and the House of Commons.

They regarded the cars as kitsch, an abomination, the “reductio ad absurdum of the mania for the fake antique” (see no. 1 below). A few design changes were made, not many by my study, and life and business went on very merrily for 10 years.

British Rail made the right call. The one the people wanted.

Additional Sources

  1. Article in the Sun, Sydney, June 4, 1949
  2. Wragg, D. The Southern Handbook: the Southern Railway 1923-1947 (2017)
  3. Lovegrove, K. Railway Identity, Design, and Culture (2004)
  4. Bradley, S. The Railways: Nation, Network, and People (2015)
  5. “The Tavern That Travelled On Rails”, Along These Tracks Blogpost (May 27, 2018)

N.B. The caption to the first image above is surely an error or typo from the source; our research, and the photo itself, suggest a c. 1949 date.

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the Science and Society Picture Library, here. The second image is from the archival Australian news report (via Trove Newspapers) linked in no. 1 above. Each is used for research (educational and historical) purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.


*I speak broadly of the period up to the 1980s. I think the position did finally change, under impulse largely from some pub groups or estates. As well, I exclude the subject of the foreign “English pub” or “Irish pub”, i.e., as successfully commoditized and exported around the world.


Old School

“Schools for Licensees and Barmaids”

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in his (1840) A Defence of Poetry. This is a profound statement and applies not just to poets as such but many types of people, from all backgrounds, who end by influencing the larger society.

It especially applies to the advancement of ideas that are contrary to accepted beliefs, but win acceptance over time.

In a three-part examination last year (it starts here) I looked at the career of the English padre Basil Jellicoe. He was a social justice advocate, active in the interwar period, who promoted the reform of pubs under church auspices. One of his ideas was to create a “College for Publicans”.

Jellicoe envisioned a school to teach pub landlords the rudiments: how to deal with customers, the importance of food service, not to over-serve, etc. He stated, as reported in 1929:

“We ought to make the publican’s profession great, noble and honorable,” says Mr Jellicoe. “I advocate the establishment of a publican’s college where men can be trained as social workers and subsequently, as first class publicans.”

At that time, there was no organized system to train people how to run a pub. Jellicoe’s idea was audacious and received with a range of reactions, from incredulity to mockery. A crude example is shown by an Australian cartoon of 1929.

Jellicoe died young, in the 1930s, with his plans largely not realized. He got two or three pubs off the ground but they did not meet expectations and reverted more or less to a standard operating model.

Yet, only three years after World War II a 12-week course existed in London to train people essentially as he envisioned. You can depend on the fact that Father Basil Jellicoe was such a “legislator” as Shelley had in mind.

The program was described in a detailed article in Tit-Bits, a long-lasting general interest magazine. It is regarded as a forerunner to the Daily Mail and similar popular media. The article was reprinted in the Australian press, ever on the alert for information on British pub ways.

And of course today courses have proliferated to teach how to run a pub. There is the PEAT scheme, training by pubcos and some brewers, and numerous private plans.

In North America various equivalents exist depending on the jurisdiction.

The Tit-Bits piece, published in 1948, shows that the training then covered a surprising amount of ground. Visits to a pub and brewery were included. The writer favoured a lapidary or rapid-fire style, not a little humorous, Dickens-style in some ways. Despite the levity the piece fully acknowledged the value of the instruction.

The course was given by the Distributive Trades’ Technical Institute. Today, through a series of art and trade school mergers, it is part of the University of Arts London.

Trevor Allen, the journalist, toured an unnamed brewery in Mile End, probably Charrington & Co. He inspected the bar and cellars at The Three Nuns pub in Aldgate. It was next to Aldgate Underground Station, part of a hotel demolished in 1970s redevelopment.

Allen remarks on the problem of disappearing beer glasses, the novelty of metered dispense, and the seeming onset of keg, or non-cask-conditioned, beer. He notes that brewers were brewing fewer styles than before the war, and spirits were still short (1948). He was lightly discomfited not to get an actual drink on his tour (vs. tea), but was promised later a double whisky to compare grain and single malt types.

The syllabus covered pretty much what today’s courses seek to impart, and maybe more. It included instruction on the history of the pub, for example. No doubt a useful topic to raise when conversation at the bar lagged, but also worthy unto itself.

I wonder if the teaching addressed the origins of the different beer types, bitter, mild, Burton, etc. It wouldn’t be a problem finding qualified people today, certainly.

I’ll end with examples of Allen’s wit.

The men, mostly young, have that confident, expansive look common to those intimately associated with beer (I’ve noted it on almost every face, passing through the brewery, and it makes me think of Falstaff, Merrie England and All That – even in the Mile End road). Then there are the women, all smart and alert – the ace bar-ladies of tomorrow. One I find, is already a manager’s wife – starting at the top and working down to the cellar. The lecturer – mellow, smiling, like a glass of clear ale in sun or lamplight – starts by knocking down all our illusions about ‘Drawn from the Wood’.

Finally, Allen’s envoi:

So now you have the layout. Twelve weeks of it – very earnest, scientific and helpful – and no heeltaps. Bill, the embryo-manager, bursting with data; Beattie the barmaid knowing a thing or two – as if barmaids didn’t, anyway!

Note re image:  Source of the image above is the Trove historical newspaper linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Pubs, Poms, and Plagues

English Pubs Under the Microscope

From my surveys of the historical international press, no country matches Australia in the depth of its interest in the English pub, particularly from the early 1940s until the mid-1950s. The coverage was regular and in-depth, usually by Australian journalists, and sometimes British ones in Australian newspapers. Readers often weighed in, in the letters columns.

Other countries, the United States, say, featured fewer and shorter pieces, often with a humorous tilt. (I am speaking of this later period). Mr. Bill Bloggs of name-your-Shire drank a yard of ale in x number of seconds, or Mrs. Bloggs of that other Shire won a beer-tasting contest, to the consternation of the men.

Australia’s coverage was more thoughtful, delineating often the social and historical aspects of the English pub. The writing is a sub-set of a broader genre of Antipodean drink journalism going back to the 19th century. The domestic picture dealt with local breweries, beer types and quality, and not least “hotels” or pubs. I have given many examples here.

The pieces on British pubs were a counterpart. The preoccupation with metropole so to speak was understandable given the ethnic origins of most Australians and the role the country played in two world wars.

A young country still imbued with notions of the frontier, Australia was less inhibited than other places on these questions. Into the 1970s the tinnie, the Darwin Stubby, and booze-artist were vaunted as emblems of national culture.

International observers noticed the phenomenon, typing it, in the words of one writer, as “aggressive and stereotypical”.* The Aussies themselves exploited the image for humorous purposes with a descent (ascent?) finally into the self-deprecating.

Today, the country is like everywhere else, nervous about its alcoholic heritage. Public health authorities and other guardians of the public good, many self-appointed, inveigh regularly on dangers of alcohol. Somewhat in contradiction, some experts suggest the young are abandoning alcohol.

I’ll mention two pieces here that neatly bookend the bygone fascination with English pubs. This piece, published in 1942 in Melbourne in the Herald, typified the rose-tinted view. It was wartime, when an attempt clearly was made to divert and relax people, but the writing illustrates how many Australians viewed the old country.

The piece is subtitled “Before the Blitz”, with the implication of showing English life as it was just ahead of the war. A sample:

The crowd gathers round the dartboard and cheers on the opposing teams. Smoke blows in clouds and hangs suspended like balloons from the ceiling— a pungent smell of shag and woodbines mingles with the smell of beer – good honest beer, locally brewed, and drawn from the wood into pewter tankards, and cloam mugs. It’s the public bar of the Dog and Duck — any night of the week, including Sundays — filled with farm laborers and small tradesmen. …. The power of the Pub is second to only that of the Church. They were built in juxtaposition right down the centuries, and together they weave the warp-and-woof of village life. Farm laborers, tenant farmers, yeoman farmers, and the few professional men that make up English Village life meet here as man to man. Maybe each knows the “state of life” to which God has been pleased to call him, but they’re good friends nevertheless.


The piece gets a lot right, even today before the pubs were closed in the current emergency. Not every pub, not in every place, but many of them.

In contrast, this 1949 article, published throughout Australia and here in Mackay, Queensland, was a more sober look. It assessed the losses to the inventory of pubs – the sheer numbers destroyed by the indiscriminate German bombing and rocket attacks. The destruction, the article makes clear, was a national heritage irretrievably lost.

The writer uses the term “inns” but conflates inns, pubs, taverns, a pattern typical in Empire-settled countries. (These terms originally had distinct meanings. An inn, for example, was a higher-grade institution, a hostel as well as a resort for drinking).

After a historical survey of the pub that includes some attention to the beer, the author sets out a rationale for the pubs having remained open during the war:

It was not until 1940 that they [the pubs] really came into the front line. They have survived through the ages because of their genius for adaptation to the ever-shifting pattern of national life. At no time in their long history did they play a more active role in the destiny of the homeland than when she was beleaguered in 1940-44 …. The inns did their best in war, and they are also helping to maintain morale in the difficult peace. The impression of the visitor is that they are woven more intimately than ever into the pattern of national life.

The observation on morale applies fully today, during Covid-19. Public authorities have recognized this: even though pubs are closed due to a unique public health situation, retail stores and breweries may still vend to the public. That vending is the functional equivalent to the pubs being open during World War II.

The words of 1949 also form a complete response to a recent article in the Independent arguing that people should weather the Covid storm without benefit of alcohol and all remaining outlets for its sale should be closed.

And when the emergency is over? Our pubs surely will adapt to an (inevitably altered) post-Covid world; this is the “genius for adaptation” mentioned above.

This Wikipedia article, whence the above image was taken, has a good paragraph on whether the storied steadfastness and social solidarity of the British in the Blitz were exaggerated. Whatever the true position, had the pubs, which then were the main outlet for alcohol, been closed, morale would have suffered even more. The lessons for today are, once again, obvious.


*The American Michael Weiner wrote this, in his 1977 The Taster’s Guide to Beer.




First use of the Term Craft Brewery (Part II)

This is a follow-up to my Part I. In their 1975 book Beers of Britain (Cassell & Collier Macmillan), Conal Gregory and Warren Knock noted that the old brewing firms of Watney and Truman had been absorbed by Grand Metropolitan Hotels, and Courage by Imperial Tobacco. They then added, at p. 10:

This is all some way from the small craftsman brewer.

The authors also used the term “craft” to contrast old regional firms with the large national breweries. At p. 9 they note that “… brewing was – and is – a master craft, and each area, even each town, had its own distinctive beer”.

The above are noteworthy, as the authors’ declared purpose was to taste the beers made across the country by the dwindling, independent, regional firms. There were no craft breweries then in the modern sense, except for Litchborough Brewery near Northampton, set up in 1974 by an ex-brewer of Phipps/Watney’s, Bill Urquhart, with another partner. Traquair House in Scotland, revived in 1965 on a noble estate, had another claim.*

Hence, while noting these atypical examples approvingly, Gregory & Knock focused on regional, old-established firms. Three reasons for this appear from the book. First, they brewed cask ale. Second, the beers represented distinct or regional flavours vs. the standardized beers of the large groups. Third, the nationally distributed beers often were pasteurized and “finely filtered” whereas cask ale was neither.

In his 1982 The Pocket Guide to Beer (Frederick Muller), Michael Jackson used the term “craft brewery” in relation to Timothy Taylor, and “craftsman breweries” in another connection. These usages may well derive from Gregory & Knock. It is inconceivable to us that Jackson did not know of their book.

This would apply equally for the cognate terms Jackson used in his 1977 The World Guide to Beer. See the Comments to Part I for all this background.

As I stated there, “craft” and its variants used in relation to brewing go back to the 1800s at least. But by the mid-1970s, the term was taking modern shape.

Jackson’s specific 1982 formulation “craft brewery” was new, grammatically. Together with the attributes he laid down for such breweries, this helped shape the future course of an industry. Indeed I would argue it was a defining moment.

Gregory & Knock’s usages persuade me as well that the French term artisan probably had little influence on Jackson. Certainly their book shows no evident Continental influences, it is thoroughly English in tone.

It seems, therefore, that they were a proximate influence on Jackson. Their book had few sales in the United States and Canada, to my knowledge, but had some writ in the U.K. as part of the 1970s cask beer revival. Gregory & Knock did not write again on beer, as far as I know again. In contrast, by the mid-1980s Jackson was internationally known for his consumer beer writing.

Final observation: Jackson’s early works, crowned by the 1982 Pocket Guide, set on its head the notion that gleaming mega-plants would replace small, technologically backward breweries to the last kettle. That was conventional wisdom in brewing for 100 years.

He wasn’t alone in advancing that notion but no other writer did so with the same élan and influence.


*The few home-brew houses operating were also noted by Gregory & Knock, and with these others may be considered proto-crafts. Yet a further example in their book: Selby Brewery (Middlebrough), a revival in 1972 of a brewery that had ceased operating 20 years earlier.


A Block in St. John’s Wood…

… vs. Kicks in Sydney

The English pub in wartime is a near-inexhaustible subject for study. So much has been written on it, not a little in our pages here. So much remains to be written, given the resources in the stacks, news archives, and more.

Take this example, a portrait of a pub in St. John’s Wood, by Neville Thomson, a staff writer for the Daily Telegraph in London. The year was 1944. Thomson was on assignment in Australia with the Sydney Telegraph, in which the account appeared.

There had been publicity locally about reforming the “six o’clock swill”. Liquor regulations had long mandated a 6:00 p.m. weekday closing hour for hotels. This led by many accounts to over-drinking to beat the closing hour. These laws endured into the 1970s.

In support of extended hours and better amenities, Thomson offered a portrait of an idyllic London pub. He chose the Abbey Tavern, in St. John’s Wood, his local when living in London.

In a time before Instagram and other social media, not to mention television, the written word counted for a lot to convey experiences to the public. A good journalist, as Thomson was, could do this in a few deft lines.

In the calm, measured style typical of British journalism then,* he set his purpose as follows:

So the U.L.V.A. [United Licensed Victuallers of Australia] wants to give Australians pubs modelled on the British pattern … with civilised drinking instead of the crazy swilling that goes inevitably with six o’clock closing. And what is the typical British pub like? Here is a profile of my “local” in St. John’s Wood, London. Characters are not fictitious, and any resemblance to real life is intentional. The pub is the Abbey Tavern, in Violet Hill, five minutes’ walk from Lord’s.

His account, short as it is, is almost cinematograph: you can picture everything he is telling you. Unlike other accounts, he focuses, not on the beer or food (or penury of same), not on the landlord, but on the patrons. He describes them by name and occupation, and the (self-created) entertainment in the pub. In the old commonplace, it’s almost like being there.

The Abbey was a Whitbread pub, at least not long before its vocation lapsed and it was turned into a private residence. This is what it looked like near the end:

It was near Lord’s as Thomson stated, the famous cricket grounds. In fact, the Abbey Tavern was once a thatched house on grounds of which Lord’s is now a part, but was re-built with the development of St. John’s Woods. I am not certain when that occurred exactly, probably the later 1800s.

You can see a picture of the original, in bucolic splendour, here.

George Orwell’s famous encomium (1946) on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, came to mind when reading Thomson’s account. Might Orwell have seen it before penning his own story? It’s possible, I think.

Thomson’s description excited a discussion in the letters-to-the-editor section. At least one person wrote to complain that Thomson exaggerated the innocuous character of Britain’s pubs. He argued that Australia should keep its laws as they were, to prevent a return of generalized intemperance.

A number wrote in to side with Thomson, of which this letter is a good example. Written by a lieutenant of the 18th Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, he had visited pubs when stationed in England. He explained with good sense why the Bluenoses were off-base. He cited inter alia a family’s Sunday gathering at The George in Colchester to bolster Thomson’s account.

The lieutenant, unlike Thomson, noted the types of beer available in the pub. Perhaps (although not clear) the variety was an implied rebuke of Australia’s undifferentiated draft beer of the day. There was mild, there was bitter, and lo “I.P.A.” – not the citrus-tropical extravaganza of our time, but English India Pale Ale, descended from the type first sent to India in the 1700s.

Flowers Brewery of Stratford made one in the same period, as mentioned in another piece of ours on the 1940s English pub.

Australian soldiers wrote uncommonly well, of all ranks, as yet another Beeretseq study shows, see here.

Note re image: sourced from the Closed Pubs site (Lost Pubs Project), here. All intellectual property therein belong solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Journalism today (everywhere) has a different emotional register, more febrile, IMO.





Back to the Future (Part II)

In a posting yesterday, I discussed how a book in the 1870s forecast the “beer of the future” for France and Belgium. By extension the predictions applied more broadly, given how brewing was quickly becoming an international business, not in ownership but exchange of knowledge and methods. The book itself canvassed methods in the main brewing countries then (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Britain).

Indeed the author, Auguste Laurent, wasn’t so far off from the mass market lager we have today.

Craft brewing is not the story here, in other words. It is important, but largely as a reaction to the trend these experts forecast.

The book promoted English top-fermentation and long storage as the way forward. This may sound odd, given most beer today is lager (bottom-fermented) and not long aged. However, in its essentials modern lager is similar to what the book argued was the ideal beer: at circa 5% ABV, not too weak, not too satiating or bitter, not sour like vinegar (as much Belgian and some French beer was), and otherwise stable.

The author solicited the opinions of subscribers to his trade magazine Moniteur de la Brasserie on the ideal beer of the future. He printed the responses in the book.

One of the most interesting was from Georges Muller in Lierre, Belgium. I could be wrong, but the name suggests a displaced Alsatian, a brewer who departed for greener pastures after the France lost Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Laurent notes in the book that brewers had left Alsace for this reason.

Muller made an argument not so different from Laurent’s. He stated the beer of the future would efface “local” styles (so lambic, faro, saison, white beer, etc.); would be pale; around 4% ABV (similar to modern light beer, which is very popular); not perishable; and again not too bitter or sweet.

Also, he forecast as did Laurent that breweries would become much larger and malting would become a separate business. At the time, many brewers still did their own malting.

Muller made an interesting statement in regard to fermentation. He states, it doesn’t matter whether the beer of the future will be bottom-fermented or top-fermented, provided it will be possible to, a) lower the temperature at will of top-fermenting beer, and b) maintain cold temperatures in the cellar. This is exactly what happened, he was prescient in this, and in most of his predictions. He even forecast the wide use of adjuncts in brewing. See pg. 153 in the link provided.

The distinction between top and bottom fermentation subsists, a complex story unto itself. However, due to modern temperature control, and I should add the cylindro-conical fermenter that gathers yeast sediment in its cone-shape base, the distinctions formerly evident between the two forms of beer have been significantly reduced.

One way to tell this is, India Pale Lager tastes rather similar to India Pale Ale. Kolsch Bier in Germany is lager-like, as is Labatt 50 Ale, and so on. It is more malt and hop types that enable to distinguish the two forms today. This is because certain hops and malts have become associated with specific lagers and ales. Very pale malt for lager, say. The Cascade hop to flavour and give aroma to IPA, and so on.

I don’t say there is no difference due to the yeast type used, but the importance is greatly reduced from formerly.

Muller was smart, he knew that precise temperature control was the key to brewing’s future. In the result other technical advances contributed, but he mentioned the most important one.

Hence, Laurent’s focus on top-fermentation is even less important when viewed in this light, and he got the rest of it pretty right.

These experts, in sum, saw the future well. It took in many cases generations for world brewing to do the job they forecast, but by the 1970s it was all in place. Then writer Michael Jackson came and rolled it back, partly.*


*Jackson was U.K.-born, active from the 1970s until his death at 65 in 2007. The Campaign for Real Ale, Roger Protz (the dean of world beer writers), Charlie Papazian and American home brewers, the first craft brewers on the West Coast, and many others were also influential in this change.






When Black IPA Rules

I really like Black India Pale Ale. A product of the mid-era of craft brewing, it offers the stylings of West Coast IPA with lashings of black malt flavour.

While I dig beer history, here I will discuss more the taste I favour. I will say though, the style is not completely new. Some years ago I drew attention to a late 1800s English beer manual, authored by Frank Faulkner, that described stout (“black beer”) made in Burton-on-Trent, U.K., which he said tasted more of pale ale than porter.

So it’s a similar idea albeit inadvertent in this case. See Faulkner, here. Presumably Bass and the other Burton stars weren’t thrilled with his remarks, and thought no doubt they were emulating classic London porter.

On the other hand, as the modern Black IPA, something different and distinct emerged from pale ale and porter.

First, the type of Black IPA I don’t like. I don’t like when the beer is too dry. The finish should be slightly sweet, as indeed IPA should be by my lights – or almost any beer, apart Brut IPA and a couple of two others.

I also don’t enjoy when the hops really go to town. If it’s hard to drink, what’s the point?

I don’t like when the black malt taste, as in porter plain and simple, has an espresso flavour. The signature (imo) should be a burnt or roasted note, not espresso, or “scorched cereal” either. To be sure in Black IPA the taste is more subtle than for ordinary porter or stout, but it should be there.

As well, I avoid usually Black IPA flavoured with a spice, herb, fruit, coffee, or chocolate. I don’t mind a little rye or oats, but the game is lost imo with non-cereal additions. Well-made Black IPA is perfect as it is, and these other things put it off, to my thinking.

Of the Ontario Black IPAs I’ve had, the above, from Silversmith in Virgil, Ontario, is first rate. (Virgil is in Niagara-on-the-Lake and was settled by United Empire Loyalists, i.e., Americans, as much of Ontario was in its early phase).

The beer has everything in the right place including the malt taste. I’ve only had one or two beers from them. The black lager never particularly appealed, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Problem Bears certainly impressed.

I suppose it’s like that with every brewery I encounter. Rarely do I like everything they do, but I’m glad when I find something I really like.

As promised on the label the hops do offer “pine”, not grapefruit or citrus, to the advantage of the beer. “Tropical” is mentioned as well. I get that too, and it all works very well.

The strength is 7.2% ABV, and the flavour impact matches the strength – not always the case with modern craft beer, but 19th century brewers understood this well.

Next, I enjoy the Black IPA currently made by Creemore Batch House, the brewpub owned by Molson-Coors Beverage Co. on Victoria Street in Toronto. It is less strong and perhaps a tad sweeter than the other, but not dissimilar in taste.

Both are exemplary brewing, redolent of the natural, the real.





Back to the Future (Part I)

A Belgo-French Beer Expert Predicts the Future; “Running Beer” Explained

Among the “Brewing Library” series sponsored by the 19th century trade journal, Le Moniteur de la Brasserie, was La Bière de L’Avenir, or The Beer of the Future. It was authored by Auguste Laurent, clearly of the Brussels Laurent family behind the Moniteur. Perhaps he wrote the uncredited volume on blending also published by the Moniteur two years earlier, which I discussed here two days ago.

Just as today when a few years – or a few days, as in 2020 – can make a large difference to an industry, this appears from the 1873 book, compared that is to 1871.

Laurent in 1873 stated there was almost no aged beer in the market except for some old lambic and Faro in Belgium. The ancestral bière de garde (keeping beer) of France, he states, and presumably the analogous bière de saison of Belgium, had disappeared in favour of low-gravity, young beers, the bières courantes. The term literally means in English, everyday or ordinary beers.

Parenthesis. A previously unnoticed (or unpublicized, to my knowledge) connection may be noted between the term bières courantes and the “running beers” or “runners” of late-1800s British brewing, words that have caused no little puzzlement to today’s beer writers. This is not for the meaning, which has always been clear – beers with little no aging sent out for quick consumption – but the etymology. Why “running”?

I and others have speculated it was a borrowing from a sprinting human or conveyance (cart, car, train). In other words, a metaphor for moving fast to point of consumption, to ensure deal condition. One thing you can’t do with cask ale – the running beer of our time – is keep it very long. It runs, not walks, to reverse the axiom.

But I think now this is all wrong. Courir, the French verb, means to run. “Running beer” was probably simply a hasty or mistranslation of “courante“. “Courante” itself, for beer, perhaps was a rendering of the English “ordinary” – a pint of Young’s Ordinary, eh? In fact ordinary equates to running in English brewing, and likely preceded the latter in usage.

It seems less likely that courante was borrowed from “running”, as courante in its usual French meaning describes well a non-aged, or vintage if you will, beer. There is no reason to look to British brewing usage to explain the term. Vins courants is a standard term in French wine terminology, for example.

Returning to Laurent’s thesis, he argues that taxes on beer in France and Belgium were too high and, especially for France, complicated to administer. He advocated the English tax-on-malt system, even thought it would be replaced in a few years by a tax on beer gravity.

He also states there were too many brewers – 6,000 between the two countries. This, with the tax load, lead to excessive competition and a lessening of beer quality. Specifically, since it cost money to age beer, it was cheaper to make beer for everyday consumption, and cut corners on materials. Laurent states these beers were “table” quality or not much higher.  Contemporary analyses of late-1800s beer strength for France and Belgium bear this out, apart a few local specialties (lambic and some beer in Lille then on the strong side, 6% ABV territory).

Laurent states originally, most beer was stronger and aged – the bières de garde. This beer he notes, could have a vinous edge, but this contributed to its digestibility in his view. Between the two books, it is clear he includes in this class the beer of Strasbourg, whose aged form, the bière de mars, was made between January and March and meant for drinking in summer but often was kept longer, a year or two.

(This March beer differed from that of Brussels which was young beer often blended with lambic to form faro. The Strasbourg beer was notable as well, this from other sources, for a lightly smoked quality and use of German hops. The smoke taste came from using wood to kiln the malt. Clearly, Rauch [smoked] Bier in Germany is a descendant of this tradition).

However, Laurent states this Strasbourg beer, while still ostensibly available, resembled an aged château whose bricks were shedding – a charming image of 19th century beer commentary. So again, the idea that taxation and competition were affecting quality.

His remedy, and I simplify as any who can read the book, should, was to restore the older, stronger, aged beer. He advises to take inspiration from England, specifically Burton-on-Trent where pale ale was stocked to maturity before being sent to market including in bottled form. He was writing at a high point of the British beer trade and noted with envy how British beer had a large part – more than half he states – of the world export beer market.

The strength of this pale ale, at 6%-7%+, clearly trumped the Franco-Belgian norm, and the high quality of the malt and hops was noted as well.

There are comments in the book that a defect of English pale ale was excessive dryness. Likely this was noticed in beer imported to France and Belgium whose attenuation ran close to FG 1000 (zero, in effect) due to a prolonged secondary fermentation in cask or bottle. That said, English brewing was still felt the ideal, with double stout being mentioned as a particular type to emulate.

Now, why not German brewing as a model? Laurent hardly ignores the subject, but dismisses Bavarian lager, as well as the Vienna form, as too rich in taste and hard to digest. Indeed at that time, lager was generally high in final gravity and fairly low in alcohol. Laurent states it was consumed for its food value in its home lands but in Britain, France, and Belgium, people did not drink beer for sustenance, and needed something less filling.

He also is dismissive for another, interesting reason. He views lager as an artificial beer due to its reliance on chilling in many stages of its production and consumption. In this sense, I think he appreciated the gastronomic superiority of the best top-fermented beer, a form of brewing that long predated bottom-fermented lager and its industrial refinements.

The net is, he vaunted English-style beer as the future, which he felt again would simply reinstate the ancestral keeping beers of France and Belgium.

He also argued for a greatly diminished number of breweries. He looked again to Burton, where he said 20 breweries did the lion’s share of production.  It was better, he said, to have fewer but larger, well-equipped and financed breweries than thousands of village breweries. In another striking image, he states some French and Belgian beers didn’t even make the rounds of their own village whereas Burton beer was known around the world.*

In this respect the predictions rang true.

It looks like he was radically wrong about top-fermenting British beer trumping lager as beer of the future, given how lager has swept the world since the 1870s. Yet, looking beneath the surface, Laurent was not far wrong. Look at the kind of lager that conquered the globe. It wasn’t the dark, heavy, sweet, beer of 1870s Bavaria. That beer has changed. It became much lighter in colour (not too far in fact from pale ale in its English heyday), drier, and also rose in strength to its present c. 5% ABV.

That is the Heineken, Stella, Carlsberg, Peroni, Budweiser, etc. of today.

True, long aging was finally dispensed for this beer. Not too long after Laurent wrote, industrial refrigeration was perfected. Further, other means, notably cylindro-conical fermentation, were adopted that precluded the need for lengthy conditioning.

But the type of beer broadly that Laurent wanted – a beer not too weak, and not too dry or sweet – is essentially what good quality, modern lager is. Modern lager is certainly not sour, and it must be said that much bière de garde/saison was tart, judging at least from the historical record.** But as I noted in my earlier post, the Moniteur stated that the best aged beer should not taste of vinegar. Some British beer observers held the same in the 1800s. A term used to describe this was “sound old”.

(The decline of ale and porter vs. lager historically may be due, in good part anyway, to the fact that rarely were the former at their best).

Today, with a renewed fashion for barrel-aged and keeping styles of beer, a range attends the market. They run (sorry) from the frankly sour to a piquant type that I think Laurent would have admired.

For a continuation of this post, see Part II.


*Of course today, craft culture, under impetus of the landmark beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007), reversed the calculus. Jackson lauded and created a world sensation for precisely the type of breweries, and many of the beers, Laurent felt were retrograde.

**See pp. 245 et seq. as an illustration, here, in the manual of Lacambre, a pioneering, mid-1800s French beer author. Laurent refers to him numerous times in his book.