The British (Beer) Invasion, 1964


In 1964 The New York World’s Fair featured a pub at the British pavilion called the British Lion, pictured.

The name is apt; the Lion is a potent symbol of British identity, Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, and Judeo-Christian belief. British identity has evolved since the 1960s but the Lion rampant conveyed these ideas 60 years ago, which signified a British institution.

Indeed, the Red Lion remains Britain’s most popular pub sign. What was Britain’s pub called at the 1939 New York World’s Fair? There wasn’t a pub as such.

Instead, there was the “British Buttery and Restaurant”. You can read its elaborate menu, stored in a historic-menu archive, here.  “Buttery” here means larder, or storehouse, for ale or wine.

It is now an obsolete term and probably was in the 1930s, but was useful by then as an “olde Englyyshe” allusion, even ploy. Also, since Prohibition had ended a mere six years earlier, a euphemistic term was perhaps felt necessary to describe a British-style eatery where you could get British beer.

By 1964 such considerations were passé and so the British Lion pub stood at the Fair proudly in mock-Tudor and roof thatching.

A website on the 1964 World’s Fair, from which the image above was selected, sets out this explanation of the pub’s mission, taken from a 1964 information release:

The British Lion Pub is a careful reproduction of the popular British half-timbered gable roofed Tudor Inn. Inside, the dining room offers a substantial British and American menu at moderate prices. The walls of the dining room are lined with attractively displayed products of the British Isles and the bar in an adjoining room is stocked with the customary American beverages as well as British beers and ales. The atmosphere is traditional, comfortable and English down to the heavy oak bar and the dart board. Outside is a large terrace with gaily colored umbrellas, tables and chairs for eating from the reasonably priced outdoor food and counter bar. Also an English shop with quality imported souvenirs is on the ground.

To our mind, the building connotes 1600s England, 1950s rec room, and 1960s church design, but it must be remembered all such buildings were meant as temporary. Even with the most authentic features they were always a compromise – any such effort is really.

Hopefully, the effort did convey some aspects of the English public house to an American public eager for new experiences.

We won’t review the food side of the menu but do note that some dishes in the 1964 menu were clearly taken from the 1939 menu, the curried meat and rice dish is one, Chicken a la King another.

The Chicken a la King inclusion is probably a culinary-cultural in-joke, get it?

In 1939 only two British beers featured, both in bottle, Bass pale ale and Guinness stout.

In 1964, the then powerful, if not always loved, Watney brewing empire dominated the beer selection. The listing included taste notes presented seriatum, as you would read in a modern beer handbook.

Taste descriptions were rare for beer before the mid-1970s. Menus might describe wines that way but rarely beer. The other day I discussed a menu from the same era, from Wursthaus in Cambridge, Mass. It set out taste notes and comments on the wines, none for the beers.

For Americans in the 1960s beer meant pale, light, cold, and fizzy. The restaurant operator probably thought more information was needed to explain beers that would otherwise confound the fancier of Schlitz or Schaefer. (For mid-1800s Manhattan such explanations would have been unnecessary, but that was then).

I like the way the two stouts are contrasted: both are “rich and dark” but one has a touch of bitter, one a touch of sweet. In this way they sound almost as two peas in a pod. Quite apt as Irish and English stout are just about the same thing.

Red Barrel was later a contentious beer in English beer mythology. Here it sounds pretty good: “smooth” yet “pleasantly bitter”, and tawny in colour. Colour in brewing often impacts flavour, not just aesthetics. Red Barrel in this period was almost all-malt too, so what’s not to like.

The Stingo was a dark barley wine or strong ale, the old Burton type if not a literal example. I probably had a couple in the 70s and 80s. In fact I had a beer of this style yesterday at Cask Days’ beer festival in Toronto, made in Maine but enviably British in character: malty, fruity, rounded and about 11% ABV. A Burgundy of beer.

If that Stingo came close, the fairgoers in ’64 were lucky.

Watney lager was clearly blonde but what was Export Dark? I can’t recall a Watney beer with that name, domestically I mean. Maybe it was a dark lager.

At first I thought it was really Watneys Milk Stout or Cream Stout, but Watney already had a stout in the list. Unless it had two, one with the lactose, one without.

These beers would have impressed the New Yorkers. British was in anyway, The Beatles, Bond, Barstow. Why not add Bitter, for an alliterative jamboree.

Speaking of A Kind of Loving, English sweet stout seems to be on the comeback trail, there were a few in the 400+ line-up at Cask Days. Also, down the road from craft beer shrines Birreria Volo and Foley’s in Toronto is the Caledonian Scottish pub. Its beer list has numerous old-school favourites that make it a modern counterpart to the British beers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

The Caledonian has Tennant’s Stout currently, Sweetheart Stout back in Scotland I think it was.

New and old schools exist side-by-side, at their best they match up in the middle.

Note re images: the first and second images above were sourced from the websites linked in the text. All property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.








4 thoughts on “The British (Beer) Invasion, 1964”

  1. Thing I noticed was the lack of ABV indications.

    Red Barrel is rather unfairly maligned -it was a premium product, the Punk IPA of its day. Where it went wrong was when they cheapened the ingredients/process and relaunched it as Watney’s Red at the start of the 1970s – that’s the beer that deserves the brickbats.

    Prior’s Preferred was a seriously premium drop :
    Given that Prior’s was on the bar, one shouldn’t assume all the bottles were British. Kamm’s of Indiana had an Export Dark but they closed in 1951 after a fire – maybe another US brewer revived it? Maybe it’s on other pages of that 1964 pricelist (you can guess the filenames based on page numbers) – I’ve not looked at all of them but I didn’t see anything based on a quick look. Interesting to see how many bocks there were – and to see the likes of Urquell and Kirin among other imports.

    • Yes, thanks, for 1939 the idea was to present American and other drinks, and some American foods, with the British ones, maybe it was felt necessary to get a fuller attendance from a largely American audience. Prior was certainly premium and I recall its rich-tasting Double Dark in the 1970s when made by Schmidt. The Prior beers featured in some in some of the 1940s Waldorf tastings I’ve discussed as well.

  2. I went to the 1964 Worlds Fair with my parents and younger brother. I was nine and too young to be sampling ales. In my late teens I encountered the occasional English ale and thought it pretty good. I travelled alone to England when I was 23 and on my first day there I went to a pub and ordered a Watneys Red Barrel. I think I had heard mention of that in a Monthy Python skit. I was informed, stiffly, that it was not a Watneys pub.

    • That’s funny. Had it been in Devon they would have been nicer to you, after all there might still be Hodders in the area, even 400 years later. 🙂


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