An American Southerner Confronts English Beer

 

The book Junius and Katherine: More Letters From WW II: From Field to Battlefront was published in 2013. Linked is volume II of a two-part series.

Junius Harris was a U.S. Southerner, Florida-born, stationed in England with an artillery regiment. After completing high school, he married, and soon entered military service. He had a clerical role that meant following the forces in the field.

After training in the U.S. and England, he served in Belgium and Germany. He survived the war and lived until age 81. A descendant published his letters home for their evident historical interest.

Even though beer was not a typical Southern drink at the time (whiskey was more so), Harris regularly comments on the beer, and food, he encountered in his service. His remarks for England are of particular interest, including how rationing affected civilians.

A scene that struck him was children waiting for hours for a small handful of “soggy” chips, when available, from a fish and chips shop. (Fish was not an issue – there was none). They often had to leave without getting any. He constantly notes the sacrifices of the English, and states many things considered essential Stateside for daily living were rationed or just not available.

Before I get to the beer, something that struck me was how completely American he was, to the point of viewing Britain as a foreign place akin, he states at one point, to Holland. An image of Harris with his young wife appears on the cover. By his visage and name he appears of British ancestry, perhaps Ulster Scots (Scots-Irish).

Yet there is not a word in the book, that I saw, of sensing any connection to Britain, socially or culturally. Perhaps he addressed this in the first volume, which I did not read, but the second volume has no hint of it.*

British beer clearly resonated with him though, contrary to the impressions of many G.I.s. He states:

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

Of Belgian beer, he was unappreciative, since it “has no alcohol in it”. This was wartime, low-alcohol beer, or so-called table beer – intentionally weak and meant to accompany meals. In Germany in 1945 he thought the beer “pretty good”, “like States beer” … but that we had in England was the best I have ever had anywhere”.

And so, while the general American impression of British beer in this period was (sorry!) lukewarm, an ordinary American –  not an epicure or food journalist, just a soldier on foreign service – had a positive reaction.

It is not completely surprising, as British-type beer had a long early history in Eastern United States, and Canada, but by the mid-1900s had largely petered out.

Finally though matters of palate resist explanation.

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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*Note: as I’ve stated in similar cases, caution is in order as this book contains some objectionable racial comments. We must take the historical record as it is, and learn from blind spots of previous generations.