Beer and Brewing in the 1940s

Mitchel Adams, licensee of the Thatcher’s Arms is preparing a carnival float representing the British pub in the 1940s and he asked on Twitter what people would have been drinking then. I looked back through my research notes and books for some information and came up with a few interesting snippets.

Obviously, for most of the 1940s British life was dominated by war and its consequences. Lives lost, buildings destroyed, ordinary life disrupted. There were shortages of just about everything. Beer and pubs were seen during the war as important for morale, but barley, sugars and so on were needed for food so pubs had a weekly beer ration and when it was gone they had to close. They kept going all week by limiting the opening times quite severely. In major cities, especially when the risk of bombing was at its highest, pubs were deserted at night anyway as people headed for the shelters.

Great efforts were made to distribute beer fairly, though not all the measures were popular with brewers. According to H.A. Monckton in his A History of English Ale and Beer (1966) brewers set up the ‘Beer for the Troops Committee’ to make sure beer was supplied to servicemen. Temporary ‘zoning’ regulations were less popular, since breweries were forced to supply to a set geographical area. This meant that some ‘tied’ pubs had to take their supplies from another brewer, while some larger brewers were allowed to deliver nationally, setting up a network of agents and distribution systems that would give them an advantage after the war.

Shortages also meant that the strength of beer declined further. Allowing for a slight blip in the early 1920s the strength of beer declined fairly steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. Monckton gives the average original gravity of beer in 1900 as 1055°; by 1950 it had fallen to 1034°. In other words, at under 5% ABV Guinness in 2010 is weaker than the average bitter ale in 1910; modern Guinness is around half the strength of the average stout before World War I.

Bottled beer became more popular as bottling technology improved in the 1930s. Before WWI the availability of bottled beer was quite limited, but by 1939 it was about 30% of the market. During WWII paper shortages meant that a lot of brewers didn’t use labels on their bottles, so different ales were distinguished only by the colour of the crown cap, or by a narrow strip of paper over screw tops. Barley wine was popular, perhaps because low gravity beers didn’t last more than a few weeks in bottles.

During the war pine and other woods took the place of oak in making casks, which must have affected the flavour of beer. Beer cans arrived in the late 1940s and Monckton concluded in 1966 that the days of bottled beer were numbered:

Because of its weight and fragility the glass bottle is by no means an ideal container and, doubtless, its days are numbered. Inevitably bottles will be replaced by some other type of container. The metal beer can, used extensively in America, was introduced to the English market after the last war but so far has not been widely or enthusiastically welcomed.

We take a little time to adapt on this side of the Atlantic.

Prices rose fast in the war years and after, partly because of rises in duty, but also because of shortages. According to Monckton, after WWI a pint was about 7d and it was still about that in 1941. By the end of the war it was a shilling and by the mid-1960s, it was 1/6d–nine times what it was at the beginning of the century. On the subject of taste Monckton is instructive, attributing a rise in the demand for sweeter beers, including Barley Wine, to the rationing and shortage of sugar in the 1940s. Following this argument the rise of bitter, hoppy IPAs in the early twenty-first century might be attributable to the excess of sugars in many modern foods.

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