Blondes, Taxis, and the West End

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

In 1944, a mordant piece by American journalist Hal Boyle appeared in the Free-Lance Star, a Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper that is still active. Boyle, a top wartime correspondent, examined the chronic shortage in wartime London for spirits and wine. Beer was more easily obtained but he had comments in its regard as well.

In a few strokes he paints a vivid picture of winsome Jean, a blonde West End bootlegger. Her M.O. was emerging stylishly dressed from a black cab clutching a package for a well-heeled or well-placed customer.

Americans in London, officers and diplomats, dominated the market for illicit liquor because they had the scratch, the brass. This caused no little resentment, the article implied, among their British hosts but if anything Boyle probably understated the fissures in the interests of inter-Allied cooperation.

But onto beer flavour. Seeking to explain mild ale and bitter beer to Americans, Boyle stated mild was like mixing Yankee beer with rainwater and sugar. And bitter, like mixing in rainwater and quinine. A neat formulation, I don’t think modern beer criticism has anything on Hal Boyle.

A 2020 Boyle might put it that IPA is like mixing Bud with vodka and grapefruit juice.

Given that American lager in the Forties was still fairly bitter, it shows that English pale or bitter ale easily outstripped it. Since no unusual bitterness was detected in mild ale, perhaps its bitterness was about equal to the American lager.

The weakness of British beer did not escape Boyle, something I’ve discussed before as commented on by Australian journalist Geoffrey Blunden. Blunden stated the British government must have thought long and hard to get the exact balance right between stimulant and austerity drink.

Boyle conveyed the American soldier’s dry (ahem) replique: English beer is like drinking one of ours, then getting hit in the head with the bottle.

Such GI metaphors were enhanced no doubt by on the ground experience, not just in pubs but via the riots and disturbances that regularly erupted near Allied camps between 1939 and 1945. I’ve discussed a few of these including the Brisbane Beer Barrage in Australia and the spectacular Halifax, Canada V-E Day riot in 1945.

At day’s end, Jean Jeanie catered to a mostly-Yankee trade. Some British thirsts went unsatisfied, raising resentments that merit sympathy. On the other hand, the profits went into British hands. It takes two to tango, doesn’t it. Or to jitterbug.