The Beer World of 1968 vs. Today

A perusal of a 1968 issue of Brewing Trade Review & Bottling (see also my previous post) paints a telling picture of the British brewing industry ca. 1970.

One focus is pub estates and how they sought new trade. Catering was increasingly stressed, and pub theming, e.g. Dutch costumes for servers to push Heineken.

Product introduction is mentioned – a new sherry (the discussion in class terms), a new shandy, Panda, even Milwaukee’s Schlitz beer by Watney Mann (it sent its beer to Boston in return), but with little or no description of their taste characteristics.

Panda Bitter Shandy is explained as suitable for the patron who expects a true “pub flavour”. By contrast Panda Mild Shandy offers something “sweeter”. That’s it.

We are as far as can be from, say, how hops are described today for taste and aroma, or an obscure European beer style bruited as the latest thing. Our fascination with sour styles, or cloudy beers, would have astounded readers of the 1968 Review.

 

 

The 1968 issue reproduced sample examination questions to qualify in brewing or malting technologies. They offer some glimmer of product characteristics, for example where matured at the pub vs. the brewery, but it is all implied.

The area was completely intramural, whereas today sensory qualities are foremost in the beer conversation, at trade level or any other.

In 1968, billboard, national press, and TV advertising were important, hence continual reference in the journal. Their anodyne character ensured further distancing from product attributes except in the most general terms.

Novelty was increasingly a factor, e.g. a Whitbread pigeon race. A rare departure from the pattern was a brief item explaining the launch of a brand in Australia by Courage, Barclay, Simonds, in joint venture with a tobacco company.

With an accompanying photo, the beer is noted in flavour and colour as “Australian”, but nothing further.

10 years later James Robertson, in his The Great American Beer Book, described Australian Courage as “… cloudy yellow, [with] faintly sour malt nose, light body, sweet and yeasty flavour, [brief] taste, no finish to speak of”.

Today, Australian hops are known and merchandized for specific flavour qualities described by terms such as gooseberry and sauvignon blanc. Sensory evaluations of this type, starting with Robertson’s prescient description, were unheard of in the 1968 trade press.

Hops are mentioned, but it is about comparative acreages (UK falling, Germany’s rising), prices, alpha acid content (i.e., bittering power and related cost), and hop extracts, a short-cut. Ads proliferate too for malt extract and brewing sugars, also short-cuts viewed in a certain historical prism.

Specific qualities and tastes all hidden, not a factor for readers. To a degree the wine world was different, especially in the United States, heralding changes in beverages generally in the next decade. Beer was still a commodity, however.

(James Robertson was a member of a New Jersey wine club and his descriptive approach to beer was clearly influenced by that experience).

Another focus in the journal is brewing or related technologies, of course still important today. Some innovations are still with us, e.g. the Sankey aka Sanke keg, a system to empty and fill a keg aseptically in one operation.

In a publicity stunt the modern beer writer Pete Brown would appreciate, a British duo placed a Sankey keg of Skol lager in a Land Rover and drove it eastward to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. There, they accepted an award for innovation on behalf of the production factory.

Unlike Brown’s later effort, which involved shepherding a keg of ale to India in an intellectual exploration of the roots of IPA, the land roving duo drank the beer on the way. They saved a last pint though for their host in Pilsen, who pronounced it in perfect condition – a case of old-world courtliness, perhaps.*

Of course, flavour did matter to British brewing in 1968, but internally in the industry. To the extent the pub trade got involved, managers and tenants relayed the intel back to the brewers. All a kind of underground or hidden process.

What changed? The onset of consumer beer lobbies and consumer writing, from a standing start in the mid-1970s. It is the main factor still driving the shape of the industry today.

There is a good irony in this, as for eons marketers and producers stated they were catering simply to consumer wants. But the balance had shifted by the 1960s to the supply side. Wants were created and increasingly “manipulated”.

The creation of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1971, the UK consumer lobby that promotes traditional British beer, was a progenitor of our consumer-led beer culture. Many view CAMRA as old-hat, but the group was revolutionary in its day.

In his trend-setting 1977 The World Guide to Beer Michael Jackson quoted a statement that CAMRA was the most successful consumer movement in Europe. He even termed it a “resistance movement”.

His comments forecast – helped introduce – a completely new era, one the brewers and finally their trade papers could hardly ignore. Jackson charted that evolution by noting that at first, industrial brewing could not “disguise its contempt” for CAMRA, but before long the brewers were “falling over each other” to accommodate its agenda.

We live still in the throes of this sea change, 45 years later. The onset of social media has only intensified the shift.

Note re image: Source of image is identified and linked in the text. Intellectual property in source is sole property of lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Participants in a venerable brewing tradition are as liable to latch on to new trends as anywhere else. We have seen this especially in the UK, which has partly forsaken its historic hop heritage in favour of more fashionable, American varieties.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “The Beer World of 1968 vs. Today”

  1. In the US in the 70s and early 80s, there were attempts to market better beer by some regional and even national brewers. Anchor Brewing, Huber Augsburger brands, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, Coors’ Herman Joseph, Ortlieb’s Boar Head Stout, Miller Ale and Stout were all put on the market with varying success. There probably was a demand, but not enough concentrated sales to sustain many of the products. Most distributors, bars and package retailers had absolutely no understanding of these oddities, and most couldn’t be bothered to learn. Early craft brewers often distributed from the back of an old pickup truck.

    Reply
    • Certainly true but I had most of those beers if not all, and they were compromises, nothing that resembled craft brewing, itself based more on pre-1920 models. The breweries had the primary responsibility to impart the products and learning, the interest just wasn’t there. Even through the early craft period it wasn’t. It took a long time for the pre-craft brewers to twig…

      Gary

      Reply
  2. ” for eons marketers and producers stated they were catering simply to consumer wants. But the balance had shifted by the 1960s to the supply side. Wants were created and increasingly “manipulated”.”

    This is great stuff. The same situation was true in a lot of industries at the time too. Some, like autos, have undergone massive changes on a par with beer or even greater. Others have barely budged.

    One thing that is interesting to me is that a ton of consumer research was being done at the time, and brewers were certainly keeping a very close eye on customer satisfaction. But you only manage what you measure, and they simply weren’t thinking in terms of serious product innovation. So taste comparisons were never seriously measured beyond small incremental changes such as adding a light beer to the lineup with a slightly lower ABV.

    Reply
    • Thanks and agree fully Clark. Recall I did those notes on the Austrian emigre motivational psychologist who urged American brewers to study re-orienting to a heavier, European taste?

      They never did (early 60s). A dozen years later the desire, evidently latent in part of the beer-buying public, manifested via emerging craft beers as well as an expanded import range.

      He had conducted conventional studies, I linked to one, anchored to the existing template (beer is fungible, advertising must shape consumer choices), but wanted to examine this different level of adaptation for brewers. Some brewers were inching toward it, eg. the one in my post “The Third Taste”. I can link these but I think you may recall them.

      Gary

      Reply
      • That does sound familiar now.

        I realize it would have been hard for macro brewers to break out of the standard model at their scale without some kind of unexpected externality. Their conceptual models were just too fixed.

        I’m sure nobody expected in 1970 that much of the kick in the pants would come from legalizing home brewing later in the decade.

        Reply
        • Homebrewing’s legalization was part of it. Also the onset of consumer beer writing. Greater appeal of imports, which started in the 60s. The wine revolution too (Merchant du Vin started in wine). All coalesced to create a new beer world.

          Reply

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