Flower Power in 1948
A story of Flower & Sons Brewery circa 1950 illustrates a number of themes characteristic of contemporary British brewing. It also suggests factors peculiar to this firm.
The study is assisted in that Flower’s, of Stratford-on-Avon, had quite an active advertising program from the 1930s. The ads fell into two camps: a generic-style appeal, hence with little or no detail on the beers, and listing each beer sold by type and price.
An example of the former appeared in Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, April 4, 1938.
A banner proclaimed “Beer is Best”, which echoed a slogan in industry-sponsored generic advertising of the period. The term “Flower’s Ale” followed, and this statement:
Only the first fresh pick of specially-selected crop is used in brewing Flower’s Ales. There is no finer drink than British Ale – no finer Ale than Flower’s.
The crop is not even specified – at best an appeal is made to latent consumer knowledge of hops or malt; that was enough.
In the same period including 1940 – the war is on now – the other type detailed Flower’s beers by style and price. The same newspaper on June 21, 1940 listed six Flower’s draught ales comprising three Mild Ales, its India Pale Ale, a Strong Ale, and Extra Stout.
The bottled section listed India Pale Ale, Light Bitter Beer, Palex, Brownex, Strong Ale again, and Flower’s Stout.
After the war the table-style ads continue, one appearing for example in Banbury Advertiser on March 20, 1946. We see five draught beers – still the three milds, India Pale Ale, and Extra Stout. There are four bottled beers: India Pale Ale, Light Bitter Beer, Palex, and Flower’s Stout.
Strong ale is gone, but it comes back as will be seen presently. By September 1948 the draughts in these tabular ads are down to two: India Pale Ale and XXX Mild Ale. Bottled India Pale Ale is now also dubbed “Gold Top”, with Light Bitter Ale, “Red Top”, “Brown Top” for Brown Ale, and “Yellow Top” for Flower’s Stout.
See e.g. in Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer, September 18, 1948.
Perhaps due to continuing national austerity Flower’s generic-style ads seem to vanish between 1945 and 1948. They return in 1949. In that year a series touted simply the refreshing quality of Flower’s ales.
Such an ad appeared in the Gloucester Echo of August 10, 1949, telling readers that “Flower’s Ale”, type(s) not stated, were “famous for flavour”. It recommended the beers as “wonderfully refreshing after your journey”, “hiking all day or …an evening stroll”. The beer, in sum, was “a drink well worth the walk”.
Flower’s charted a new path later in the fall of 1948, after the ad mentioned in the Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer. A new strong ale was introduced called Special Brew. Initially this was a draught-only product.
The first such ad I found is headlined “Out Nov. 8th. A GRAND NEW BREW”, and appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph on October 28, 1948.
The ad continued:
BEER AS IT WAS IN 1848. Keep a sharp look-out for Flower’s New SPECIAL BREW—a long drink with the stimulation of a short! Brewed to the formula of a century ago, this new Flower’s brew has twice the strength and satisfaction of pre-war beers. It’s twice the price, too, so FOR ‘SPECIAL’ OCCASIONS FLOWER’s SPECIAL BREW.
DRAUGHT ONLY NOW – SOON IN BOTTLES. TOO.
The price stated was 1’6 per half pint, or a shilling and sixpence. (While coincidental here, a sixpence, or tanner as colloquially called, had a talismanic significance in Stratfordian history, not unconnected to beer, to which I shall return).
Twice the strength presumably referred to the standard average beer strength before the war, but was it twice as strong as Flower’s Strong Ale in 1940? This seems unlikely.
What about that prewar average strength?
On April 30, 1934 the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail reported statistics on the brewing industry obtained from an annual study by the United Kingdom Alliance, an influential temperance lobby.
Using 1932 as the reference year, the Alliance found beer on average at “slightly over 4 per cent by volume”.
This jibes essentially with a report in the Peterborough Standard on March 24, 1933, that stated average gravity of beer for the year ended March 31, 1933 was 1039.5.
Neville Chamberlain delivered his 1933 budget on April 25, 1933, according to a House of Commons Fact Sheet. As reported by press accounts in the 1930s a deal was done with brewers: they received a reduction in beer duty in exchange for increasing beer strength and reducing its price by one penny per pint.
The brewers also agreed to use more malt from British barley. Press accounts refer variously to an increase in gravity resulting from the Budget of 1.5-2 degrees, generally the latter. For my purposes, it is not necessary to plumb the actual mechanics of the change.
If the typical pint post-1933 Budget was 1042 OG, one can see average strength was still in the neighborhood of 4% abv, perhaps a touch over. Presumably Flower’s beers followed this pattern, hence its 1948 Special Brew might have been 8% abv, although that seems high.
Ron Pattinson has examined a record for Flower’s Shakespeare Ale in 1955. He calculated its strength, and impressively high final gravity, at 6.4% abv and 1027.
This is relevant as Special Brew was renamed Shakespeare Ale in 1951, specifically on June 1, as stated in an advertisement in Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser on June 15 that year.
The ad noted:
On 1st June 1951 Flower’s Special Brew changed its name to
FLOWER’s Shakespeare Ale
but the quality and strength remain the same as originally brewed 100 years ago.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the formulation hadn’t changed on the way. We cannot be certain the formula for bottled Special Brew was even the same as for the draught.
Before Special Brew became Shakespeare Ale, a bottled version was introduced, in other words, still called Special Brew. It was released in time for Christmas in 1948, sold in nips, aka “splits”, at 1’3 each. See for example the ad in Banbury Advertiser on January 5, 1949 which read in part:
Just in time for Christmas – Flower’s Grand New Brew is bottled! It’s already in great demand for its flavour, strength and satisfaction which are double those of the best pre-war beers. Flower’s ‘Special’ brewed to the formula of exactly 100 years ago —is the best beer there’s ever been …a long drink with all the cheeriness and stimulation of a short. Make Christmas more merry with Flower’s SPECIAL BREW —on draught or in bottle!
BEER AS IT WAS IN 1848.
For ‘special’ occasions.
You may view the label for this beer, reproduced with great clarity as all the labels in the site, in the Midland Pubs website. The page contains a useful history of the brewery, as well.
Perhaps therefore Shakespeare Ale was weaker than Special Brew, or one of its two forms. Or perhaps the strength was the same all along, in which case Flower’s “twice as strong” wording for Special Brew seems hard to interpret – perhaps even puffery.
As far as “1848” is concerned, year of the supposed model brew, I think Flower’s picked it just because it was an even 100 years before 1948. Probably Special Brew had a good malty taste and body, and therefore likely resembled some Flower’s beer in the 1840s; that was enough (I infer) to justify the ad copy.
6-8% alcohol was not unreasonable for the mid-1800s, depending on the type of ale.
My searches reveal Flower’s made a range of pale, mild, and strong ales at different times in the 1800s – and one was termed Shakespeare Ale, albeit later in the century. One of these, circa 1850, was likely close to Special Brew in alcohol.
Probably Flower’s beers of c. 1850 were all-malt, but I doubt that would have detained the 1948 Flower’s in terms of its advertising. We are, by early postwar, firmly in the time of advertising sophistication.
Marketing likely had more to do with the quoted description for Special Brew than brewers’ technics, in other words.
In 1950, Dennis Flower, described as brewing director of Flower’s, told the Birmingham Daily Gazette (June 6, 1950) that he wanted to export Special Brew to the U.S. He stated it might be renamed after Shakespeare.
As far as I can tell the export plan did not materialize. No doubt the idea had a special significance for Flower’s. The founding Flower, Edward, had emigrated to Illinois in the U.S. with his father Richard, before returning a few years later to found Flower’s brewery in Stratford, in the early 1830s.
Martyn Cornell has recorded some interesting, indeed commendable history on this account, which you can read in his blog essay from 2020.
I discussed earlier that a number of British brewers had plans around 1950 (in some cases, the late 1930s) to export beers to America that by today’s standards are craft beers: audit ale, Russian stout, oyster stout and honey ale, and some of the Beamish stout line, in particular.
Some of these beers did reach Stateside, but seemingly got sidelined due to the Korean War or perhaps the inherent limitations of the U.S. market.
Dennis Flower in the story mentioned expressed concern that beer for the U.S. had to remain bright while subjected to very cold temperatures.
The brewery was seeking a solution to this, although the colour and strength of Special Brew did not deter Dennis (said the account). He noted American soldiers happily drank a strong dark beer of Flower’s during the war.
And so we see interesting patterns in British brewing history confirmed in the case of ca. 1950 Flower’s, but also perhaps something more individual, the idea to come home as it were.
This does not put the matter too highly, as numerous historians who have studied Flower’s history including Martyn Cornell concur Edward and his father Richard were intent to find fortune outside England, even for a time after returning to England.
Finally though, their fate, and undoubted success to boot, lay in their birth country, Albion.
Note re image: Image above was sourced from the Brewery History page on Flower’s Brewery. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.