A G.I. Gins up English Beer

One could probably write a long essay on the confrontation of American soldiers with British beer in World War II, even a book. An outline:

  1. British Beer in 1939: Styles, Temperature, Carbonation
  2. Effect of War Measures on Beer, pub Hours, pub Habits.
  3. Beer Types and Characteristics in U.S. and Canada on eve of WW II
  4. Pre-1930s ale and Porter in North America
  5. Beer Drinking 1933-1939 Among North Americans 18-35
  6. Policies of American and Canadian Forces on Drinking
  7. Availability of Alcohol on Allied Bases, Home Front and Britain
  8. Officer’s Messes and Clubs Viz. Other Ranks
  9. The Dislike of British “Warm Beer” – Myth or Reality?
  10. Reception of Americans and Canadians in Wartime Pubs
  11. “Americanising” British Beer for Allied Soldiers
  12. Influence of Americanised Beer in Post-war U.K.

I’ll deal here, and only briefly, with no. 9 above. I have read enough, in secondary literature and digitized newspaper archives, to conclude that Allies’ dislike of “warm British beer” was not a myth. True, World War II journalism was organized around certain memes to present issues to the home readership in a lively yet disciplined way. Warm beer might have been one, to show there was a friendly disagreement between Allies on this domestic and benign question, with the reality being quite other. But I think it is fair to say, in general, cask-conditioned beer at any rate bemused our soldiers stationed in Britain.

The full picture differed, that is. In my previous post I mentioned a British publican, relocated to central New York in the mid-1950s, who recalled Yankee customers as quite happy with beer at the wartime Queen’s Head (likely in Piccadilly – it is still there). Indeed I have found numerous non-committal and even favourable references to wartime U.K. beer by North Americans. An instance appears from a book, Junius and Katherine: More Letters From WW II: From Field to Battlefront, published in 2013. It is the second volume of a two-part series.

Junius Harris was a Southerner, Florida-born and raised, in an artillery regiment. After completing high school he married and then entered military service. He had a clerical role that involved following the forces closely in the field. After training in the U.S. and then England he served in Belgium and Germany with his regiment. He survived the war and lived until 81. A descendant published the volumes for their historical interest.

Even though beer was not, at the time, a typical Southern drink (whiskey more so), Harris regularly commented on the beer, and food, he encountered in his service. His comments for Britain are of particular interest, including the effects of rationing on the British people. One scene that struck him was the sight of children lining for hours for the hope of a small handful of “soggy” chips from a fish and chips shop (there was no fish, just the potatoes). They often had to leave without getting any. He constantly noted the sacrifices of the populace, stating that many things considered necessary at home for daily living were rationed or simply unavailable.

Before I get to the beer, one thing that struck me paging through the book is how completely American he was, to the point of regarding Britain as a foreign place, akin he states at one point (in architecture, say) to Holland. An image of Harris with his young wife Stateside appears on the cover. Both by his visage and full name he appears of British extract, perhaps Scots-Irish distantly, but in any case of Anglo-Saxon lineage. Yet there is not a word in the book, unless I missed it, of feeling any connection to Britain culturally. It is possible he addressed that in the first volume, which I did not scan.

British beer clearly resonated with him, though. He makes this comment:

I went to the pub here on the post (that’s a beer hall) and had a few glasses of bitters last night. They were out of [mild] ale. The bitters tastes a little like [American lager] beer only it has a far better taste and is not near as bitter as the beer they sell in the states now.

It is something of a surprise that he found British bitter less hopped than American lager. Perhaps wartime U.K. exigencies on brewing explained this. More likely I think, the relative sweetness and body of the British drink dampened the bitterness. Of course it’s hard to say, at day’s end, he liked what he found.

Of Belgian beer, I saw two references. One was unappreciative, since the beer “has no alcohol in it”. Hence it was either wartime washy stuff or so-called table beer, intentionally low in alcohol and meant for family drinking at meals and such. In Germany in 1945 he states the beer was “pretty good”, “like States beer” – this makes sense – “but that we had in England was the best I have ever had anywhere”.

And so we see an instance of someone, not an epicure, not a gastronomic journalist, just a U.S. soldier on foreign service, who evidently valued British beer. It’s not surprising really as British-style beer had a long history in parts of the United States (and Canada of course) before the onset of National Prohibition in 1920. It did again from the 1980s, big time, although modified in hop type and, it must be said, serving temperature.

Note: as I’ve stated on a couple of occasions, historical documents sometimes contain denigrating racial comments. This one does as well, so a warning if you run across them. We must take the historical record as we find it, and try to learn from the ignorance previous generations were liable to and the injustices they countenanced.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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