Tuesday 6 October 2009

Another world

I was recently engaged in a discussion in some blog comments that underlined how much things had changed in the beer world over the past thirty years, and how younger people understandably didn’t really appreciate what life was like back then when I started my legal drinking career.

So here are a few points of the drinking and pubgoing experience of the late 1970s that are very different from today:

  • Most pubs here in the North-West just served standard mild and bitter. Apart from the odd sighting of Pedigree or Draught Bass, there was nothing that could be called a premium beer
  • Beer was often sold from unmarked handpumps
  • Electric beer dispense was commonplace, typically using diaphragm meters, which were generally unmarked too
  • Free houses were virtually unknown and there were no guest beers. It was just the regular products of the owning brewery
  • Across the board, there was a lot of choice, with substantial tied estates belonging to Border, Higsons, Burtonwood, Oldham Brewery, Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Mitchells and Yates & Jackson that have largely vanished from the face of the earth now
  • But in many local areas there was a marked dearth of choice – the local Robinson’s monopoly in Hazel Grove being a case in point. Many areas had a similar dominance of Greenalls pubs
  • It was considered a point worthy of note that in Macclesfield you could get beer from eight different breweries (Ansells, Bass, Boddingtons, Robinsons, Marstons, Greenalls, Tetleys and Wilsons)
  • Central Manchester was, surprisingly to the outside observer, virtually devoid of pubs tied to the local independent breweries – it didn’t have a single Holts pub
  • Although there was a compulsory afternoon closure (around here, generally 3-5.30), most pubs stuck fairly closely to the standard permitted hours. Weekday lunchtime closure was very rare
  • Closing time was 10.30 pm Monday-Thursday, with 11 pm closing only on Friday and Saturday
  • Pubs were a lot busier with drinkers, especially at lunchtimes and earlier in the week
  • There was a lot more lunchtime drinking by office workers
  • Middle-aged couples would just “go out for a drink” in the evening in a way they don’t tend to now
  • There was much less food served in pubs, especially in the evenings. Many of today's high-profile country dining pubs did not serve evening meals at all
  • On the other hand, food was much more varied and there was more of a sense of experimentation with styles and formats. It had not yet settled into today’s standardised “pub menu”. For example, a number of pubs had extensive lunchtime buffets – something you never see nowadays
  • A lot of the bottom-end pubs were extremely scruffy in a way that is very rare now
  • There was also a much higher proportion of badly kept or undrinkable cask beer
  • There was a clear hierarchy amongst country pubs of “No coaches”, “Coaches by appointment only” and “Coaches welcome”. Does anyone (apart from CAMRA) actually organise coach trips to pubs any more?
Tell the kids all that now, and they won’t believe you!


  1. Brought back some memories. Can remember eating "Chicken in a basket and chips" in a pub in the 1970s and thinking it was exotic! Well when you are a child any pub food was.
    Can also remember a pub with an off-license - the jug and bottle department - that went in a 70s refurbishment.

  2. I agree with all that and could add a few more points, but I must go out. One thing I don't really agree with is "There was also a much higher proportion of badly kept or undrinkable cask beer".

    Pubs were brewery owned with teams of inspectors. A complaint to a brewery about poor beer was taken seriously and they had the power to do something about it. And most pubs were cask then.

  3. I'm not sure there – I certainly recall a number of pubs which you would actively avoid because the beer was always poor, and Robinson's was notorious for its inconsistency. I also remember plenty of occasions of returning beer to the bar because it was cloudy or sour, which happens much less often nowadays. In general the pubs that couldn't keep cask properly have either gone over to keg or shut down.

  4. I'd love to know, in addition, what the price of a pint was (if shillings and thripany bits and farthings and what not, a conversion would be nice, pal) and whether in your subjective view, the lot of the drinking man is better or worse. Cheers, grandad.

  5. Good list, although I could suggest a pub which consistently serves sour Robbies now.

    I'd add that this period was when there was a push towards keg beer and in the North-West, keg was pushed as a premium beer. Matthew Brown did Harvest, I think, and Greenall Whitley did Festival. Boddington's bitter was a legend from far-distant lands. As an aside, a few weeks ago I found a copy of 'Ale of Two Cities', the Manchester and Salford local guide from 1974. Nostalgic reading.

    Also, weren't there just three pubs that brewed their own beer? All Nations, Ma Pardoes and the Blue Anchor in Cornwall?

    @CL: I remember paying 1/10 for a pint of Greenall's bitter in 1971 - 9p in this new-fangled decimal money. Mild was cheaper, especially in the public bar.

  6. It's difficult to generalise about the price of a pint as there was quite severe inflation during that period. Roughly speaking, a pint of bitter would set you back around 30p in 1977. The point of the post was not to say things were better or worse, just that they were very different. I would say the best pubs now are considerably better than they were back then, but pubgoing does not play such a major role in society as it did.

    The Three Tuns in Bishop's Castle was the fourth pub that brewed its own beer.

  7. At those prices, you can see why pubs were busier!

  8. If the cask beer was as good as Tandleman says, why did so many people drink bottled beer back then?

  9. "why did so many people drink bottled beer back then?"

    Did they? I occasionally saw people with bottles of brown ale or Guinness, maybe even barley wine, but the vast majority would be drinking draught beer.

  10. Most people did drink straight cask, bitter or mild, though bottle mixes were popular depending on location. A lot drank bottles of brown with bitter, which I often did when in Liverpool social clubs with keg or tank beer. Don't forget cask was the norm and it turned over very quickly. You had to be specially stupid to make it bad unless of course your cellar or line cleaning regime was poor. Just like now in that respect.

    And this was back when landlords were career men. They knew their stuff.

  11. Agreed a significant minority of mainly older blokes drank splits, but drinking straight draught ale was still the norm.

    I think the tales of cask beer being routinely poor date more from the 50s than the 70s - that's when there was a big rise in bottled beer sales. It was also maybe more of a Southern phenomenon - hence the popularity of light and bitter in the London area.

    In the 1970s the standard of cellarmanship in the good pubs was at least on a par with nowadays, and the much higher turnover helped keep the beer in good nick too.

  12. Fair enough. Good point about the turnover. Consensus for once?

  13. Tandleman, are you sure you aren't conflating 'cask' and 'keg' beers?

    My memory of those years (when I wasn't drinking legally, I do not blush to admit) was that cask beer was very rare Hertfordshire. The thin-ness of older editions of the Good Beer Guide would support that notion.

    Brian, follower of Deornoth

  14. Ahhhh! Nostalgia.

    I was brought up in the North West.

    I recall many of the things written in the post, and comments.

    In our town it was mostly Grenalls or Tetley. I became of legal age to drink in 1981, however I recall going to see the rugby league challenge cup final in 1979 and getting bought a pint by my brother. A round of 5 pints in London was exactly £2.

    It is nice nowadays, however, to be given so much choice in types of beer. My local has served guest beers for well over 15 years.

    A nice refresher in how things were.


  15. Re: prices. When I went to college in September 1972, the student bar prices were 13p for bitter, and 11p for mild. Guinness and lager were 15p & 18p, but I don't recall which was which.

    It might sound cheap but it wasn't, at least not to me as a student: my beer money for a week was less then a fiver.

  16. I don't think you can draw any conclusions from the thinness of older GBGs other than Camra was a lot smaller and so coverage was poorer. For example, I know there was plenty of cask round here but this wasn't necessarily reflected in the GBG.

  17. In the 1970s, the availability of cask beer varied much more between different regions. In some areas dominated by the "Big Six" brewers it was very thin on the ground – this may have included Hertfordshire. In other areas, such as most of the North-West, the West Midlands and Nottingham, it was very common.

  18. @RedNev. Assuming you drank the dear stuff at 18p and had a fiver, you'd neck 28pints a week (27.7reaccuring). 28 pints at £3 = £84 a week, or £4368 a year.

    Within the means of todays student? Or even an average £25k a year earner?

    A significant clue to why people frequent the pub less is in the price. Upping my tesco grog ain't making the pub any more affordable,

  19. Another thing worthy of a mention is that lots of pubs had fish tanks - something you never see nowadays.


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