Blondes, Taxis, and the West End

Beer Et Seq is always interested in period descriptions of beer flavour. It’s a rare window onto tastes of the past. Technical brewing descriptions help a lot too, but more by inference and deduction.

In 1944, a mordant piece by Hal Boyle appeared in the Free-Lance Star, a Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper still published. Boyle, a top wartime correspondent, examined the shortages in London for spirits and wine. He said beer was more easily obtained but had comments in its regard as well.

His vivid picture of shapely Jean the blonde bootlegger evokes an Avengers-type tableau, only it’s 20 years earlier and Diana Rigg was a blonde. The well-dressed woman-about-town emerging with a package from a black cab in deserted street… Maybe Honor Blackman is the better analogy, for those who remember.

The Americans in wartime London dominated the market for illicit Scotch and gin – because they had the scratch, the gelt. This caused no little resentment among their British hosts, as the article implies, probably with understatement in the interest of Allied cooperation.

But onto beer flavour: seeking to explain mild ale and bitter beer to Americans, Boyle said mild is like mixing your beer with rainwater and sugar. And bitter is like mixing it with rainwater and quinine. Today he might say the IPA that is the rage around the world is like mixing Bud with vodka and grapefruit juice.

Given that American lager in this period was still fairly bitter, it shows that English beer – pale or bitter ale – easily outstripped it. Since no unusual bitterness was detected in mild ale, one can assume its bitterness was about equal to mid-century American lager.

The weakness of British beer was remarked on, something I’ve discussed before as noticed by an Australian journalist. He stated the government must have pondered long and hard to get the stimulant/austerity balance exactly right. The American soldier’s reaction was typically popular and idiomatic: it’s like our beer if you drink it and get hit in the head with the bottle.

No doubt such GI metaphors had their real-life counterparts judging by the riots and disturbances that occurred in and around the various camps, any Allied country, in 1939-1945, but that’s another topic.

Anyhow, Jean Jeanie was catering to a mostly-Yankee trade and some British thirsts went unsatisfied. On the other hand, the profits went into British hands. It takes two to tango, eh? Or to jitterbug.


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